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We might answer that by asking a different question: Whom is school for?
The consensus answer for the authors in the Times symposium is the state, though they almost never say so plainly.
For education reporter Anya Kamenetz, the schools are there to serve as Horace Mann’s “crucible of democracy.” Mann’s view (also Kamenetz’s view) is that schools are there to serve as homogenizing institutions — though, again, as with the statism, the conformism is rarely acknowledged. Kamenetz worries that if students are educated outside of the state’s effective monopoly, then they may come into contact with religious or political views of which she disapproves. She complains about being “singled out” as a Jew in Louisiana and then praises Mann’s intellectual roots in Massachusetts, where public schools were created in order to systematically impose Puritan orthodoxy on the population and to prevent the nefarious influence of popery among a people who had made it a hanging offense for a Jesuit to enter the commonwealth. (The first public Mass was not said in Boston until 1788.) For those who are unfamiliar with the religious character of compulsory-education laws in New England, consider that the first Massachusetts public-school law — the first of its kind in the New World — bore the wonderfully evocative title of the “Old Deluder Satan” Act of 1647. Its Puritan intentions live on in the Blaine Amendments, the assortment of state laws that prohibit state funding of “sectarian” — meaning Catholic — schools. That Mann’s purportedly nonsectarian “common” school was distinctly Protestant in its conception is generally understood.
This [school-choice] movement rejects Mann’s vision that schools should be the common ground where a diverse society discovers how to live together. Instead, it believes families should educate their children however they wish, or however they can. It sees no problem with Republican schools for Republican students, Black schools for Black students, Christian schools for Christian students and so on, as long as those schools are freely chosen. Recent Supreme Court decisions open the door to both prayer in schools and public funding of religious education, breaking with Mann’s nonsectarian ideal.
There is a lot to consider in that. To write of the “common ground where a diverse society discovers how to live together” is euphemistic — it is marketing copy for the project of indoctrinating students in whatever official orthodoxies the people who run the education establishment prefer. There is, in fact, very little racial, cultural, or economic diversity in our highly segregated public schools — four out of five white students go to schools that are predominantly white, most of them in schools that are more than 75 percent white — and, hence, little opportunity for “discovering” how to live together in diversity. There have been Christian schools for Christian students in the Western world for a thousand years or so (instruction has been offered at Oxford since at least 1096), and most of our best universities were founded as Christian schools. The work of historically black colleges and universities has been extraordinarily valuable to African Americans and very likely will continue to be. (This is particularly true of the black elite, whose institutions make up those blessed corners of American life for which money alone is insufficient to secure entry.) And while I cannot immediately think of any Republican high schools for Republican students, the political affiliations of Democratic schools in Democratic areas could not be more obvious.
Maybe black schools and Christian schools are not good for the progressive vision of a populace educated into uniformity by the state, but they are awfully good for — let’s not forget them! — students. Students at Spelman or Howard — or Hillsdale or Grove City — may not get the approved version of the “gorgeous mosaic” of American multiculturalism, but they get something that is very valuable — in my view, more valuable: a real education in a community with a character of its own. It is true that the Hillsdale graduate is more likely to have read Cornelius Van Til while the Morehouse man probably will have read some books that the Hillsdale graduate hasn’t, but each of them is going to be much, much better educated than most of his peers. T. S. Eliot once observed that he was surprised and impressed by the range of reading his Harvard students had done but thought that it might have been better if they had read fewer books but the same books. There is something to that, of course, but the kind of common culture T. S. Eliot had in mind is, to put it gently, not the same as what our progressive school monopolists are cultivating in the institutions under their control.
Setting aside the serious question-begging — that our society and our liberal-democratic institutions would benefit at all from sameness in education — there is the question of why some abstract egalitarian ideal should be given predominance over the real-world interests of actual children and young adults whose lives would be improved — not in every case, but in many cases — by access to different kinds of education better suited to their own needs and interests. I cannot think of any reason why that should be — if you believe that the goal of education is to educate, to e ducere, to “lead forth.” If you believe that the goal of education should be to reshape society along certain egalitarian lines and to impose a shared vision of the good life on a genuinely diverse population of some 330 million souls, then the old-fashioned Bismarckian factory model of education put forward by figures such as Mann and Kamenetz makes more sense; the schools are manufactories, producing the goods — citizen-workers — required by the state.
The other answers given to the question, “What is school for?” in the symposium are: economic mobility, according to John N. Friedman; making citizens, according to Heather C. McGhee and Victor Ray, with a focus on racial issues; care, says Jessica Grose, who is more frank than most in treating schools as government-funded daycares and supplementary welfare agencies; learning to read, says Emily Hanford, an unobjectionable if excessively modest goal; connecting to nature, according to Nicolette Sowder, who produces this kind of horsesh**: “So I developed a method called Wildschooling, a form of home-schooling that celebrates an interconnected, relational view of nature”; merit, says Asra Q. Nomani, perhaps conflating what students bring to school with what they should take from school; hope, says Gabrielle Oliveira, because we must endure that kind of sanctimony; parent activism, offers a panel of people I want to keep as far from schools as possible; and the students, with those of Fremont High School reminding us that they are, as Jonah Goldberg once put it, at the bottom of the learning curve. The economist Bryan Caplan, in his usual bracing style, offers the sole note of real dissent: What schools are good for, he says, is “wasting time,” writing: “I have deep doubts about the intellectual and social value of schooling.” I do, too — more than I did before reading the Times symposium.
Most students do not want and would not benefit from much in the way of advanced education. We should make it available to those who want it and who have the capacity for it, but what most students need is basic education and job training, or basic education and preparation for job training. As I have argued for some time, much of our discussion about education — from elementary school through graduate school — is distorted by the fact that we lump together liberal education (meaning education in the arts and sciences) and job training. These are not the same thing, they probably do not belong in the same institutions, and they serve different students in different ways. Of course, these things can go together in some situations: The best kind of legal education is also a literary and historical education, and many students whose talents lead them into science and mathematics also have artistic interests and talents, particularly touching music.
But the question should not be: What kind of education is good for society? Or, What kind of education is good for the economy, or democracy, or liberty? It should be: What kind of education is good for John? For Jane? For Seth? For Sita? For Tai? For Ajani?
There isn’t an answer. There are answers.
The Puritans who wrote the Old Deluder Satan Act knew why they wanted universal compulsory education. And the puritans of our time know why they want it, too, i.e., because you hicks and proles can’t be trusted to pass on the vision of the anointed. But they too often are embarrassed to say so.
Words about Words
That the words lord and lady are related will not surprise you — they go together. What may surprise you is that both are related to a third word, loaf. Lord comes to us from the Old English hlāford and the earlier hlāfweard, meaning keeper of the bread. The related word lady comes to us from the Old English hlǣfdīge, the first part of which, hlǣf, means loaf, and the second part of which is derived from a word meaning kneading. The ancient world was a hungry world, and he who had the power to give bread was a high and mighty man, indeed. The Hebrew word for capital-L Lord we encounter in the Bible, Adonai, doesn’t have these bready associations, as far as I can tell, but it is interesting that (as I read) it is plural, grammatically closer to “my Lords” than “my Lord,” which is an interesting little detail for a religion whose whole thing was monotheism. The form is not meant to be understood as literally plural but as respectful. (An Orthodox Jewish friend once told me that he thought of Islam as being closer to Judaism than Christianity is, because Trinitarian Christians are, in his view, polytheists, even if they don’t quite mean to be.) That the figure Christians address as Our Lord is present (or represented, depending on your flavor of Christianity) in bread gives the English etymology a satisfying character.
(Some of you may have heard Flannery O’Connor’s assessment of the question of the Eucharistic Presence: “If it’s just a symbol, then to Hell with it.”)
I have been listening to Marc Morris’s The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England, which is just wonderfully done, which is where I learned about lords and loaves. It is not very difficult to see much of ourselves in the Anglo-Saxons and their politics: It seems to me that there are still many people who desire a lord and who still would very much prefer servitude to liberty — as long as the bread keeps coming.
Unique means one of a kind. Repeat: one. It does not mean nifty, interesting, unusual, or anything like that. A thing or a person either is one of a kind or is not — which is why it is wrong to speak of something being very unique or a little unique. That which is unique is sui generis — in a class of its own.
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From this journal’s founding statement: “We believe that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience. On this point we are, without reservations, on the conservative side.”
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Prosecute the Powerful
Republicans really want to talk about Hunter Biden’s laptop. Democrats want to talk about January 6. Every partisan has his favorite story.
What if I told you, those are the same story?
They are, in a sense.
By the numbers, there isn’t much reason to care about January 6. The Capitol architect estimates that property damage was something around $3 million, and there were five deaths associated with that tornado of rage, filth, and stupidity. In term of loss of life, the fiasco at Travis Scott’s Astroworld show in Houston was twice as bad — ten dead — and, if you ask the lawyers, the dollar damages were a whole lot worse: They’re currently asking $3 billion in total, with 387 lawsuits from 2,800 alleged victims at last count. (The dollar figures are not strictly comparable: The $3 billion in damages sought in the Astroworld mess includes both property damage and bodily injury.) But I care a lot more about January 6 than I do Astroworld, because — this part matters! — it was an attempt to nullify a legitimate election and thereby effect the overthrow of the government of these United States. I care about that. There are lots of riots and lots of other crime. When those riots take on a particular political character, they are of much more urgent interest.
There are a lot of Hunter Biden types in the world, and I don’t care about most of them. Coke and hookers and all that? I’m a libertarian — that stuff isn’t very good for you, but I’m not inclined to throw anybody into prison over it. Corrupt business practices? I’m not going to say those don’t matter, but I’m a lot less fussy about that than many Americans are — I’m not convinced insider trading should be a crime, for instance. There are a lot of people who have gone to jail for financial crimes who shouldn’t have, in my view: Michael Milken, Martha Stewart, Conrad Black. (I’d be more inclined to put Baron Black of Crossharbour in a dungeon over that Trump book, even if the Supreme Court legalized that kind of performance in Lawrence vs. Texas.) There are a lot of idiot sons on a lot of corporate payrolls. But there is reason to believe that Hunter Biden was accepting payments for political favors secured through his father, and some reason to believe that he was acting as a conduit for payments to his family that amounted to bribes. There is very good reason to believe that Hunter Biden should have been charged with other serious crimes — crimes for which people without his family connections have been charged in similar circumstances. To be clear: There have been no such charges filed, much less charges that have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. But the Hunter Biden situation is serious in a way that the shenanigans of your average moneyed and coddled and drug-addled mediocrity are not — because of their political character.
I’m not really convinced that guys who peddle coke to such idiots as Hunter Biden should go to prison at all. I am very much convinced that politicians and members of their extended families who take bribes, sell favors, or steer contracts to friends and family should be dropped in the nearest oubliette for 20 years.
Not all riots are the same thing: Looting a sneaker store is a serious crime and ought to be treated as such, but attempting to overturn an election by means of violence is a very different sort of thing. Not all useless rich-guy drug addicts are created equal, and neither are their crimes. We should be more inclined to prosecute the powerful and the connected, rather than less inclined.
Crimes of a political character erode the foundations of the regime itself and as such are a menace more urgent and more general than what might be suggested by the particular details of the crime itself. In Texas, theft of less than $1,500 is a misdemeanor — but if Senator Bob steals $1 from the Treasury, he needs to go to the least pleasant prison we have for a very long time. A free society has to defend its institutions fiercely and with great vigilance.
The real cost of corruption is much, much higher than the value of the money that changes hands. The cost is high even when no money changes hands.
Words about Words
Last week, I did an online event with Cherise “No Relation” Trump of Speech First, an admirable organization that looks after the free-speech rights of students on our increasingly illiberal college campuses. You should check it out.
Cherise Trump gets asked if she is related to the former president pretty often. But her name is interesting on both ends.
Cherise is from the French word for cherry, cerise; more specifically, cherise is an old regional variation of the standard French word. The s at the end of cherise was dropped when the word was brought into English as cherry apparently because English speakers wrongly thought cherise was plural — but it is singular, the plural being cherises. Many English speakers would have been familiar with the French word chère, meaning “dear,” which may have influenced cherry. Interestingly, that isn’t the only time that has happened: pease, from the Latin pisum, became pea in English, also a back-formation from an erroneously interpreted plural. Caper, from the Latin capparis, probably came s-less into English in the same way.
Some more words about words . . .
I watched just as much as I could stand of Netflix’s painfully unfunny and woefully sanctimonious special The Hall, a kind of hall-of-fame induction for great comedians. Jon Stewart, who is the Michael Jordan of sanctimony, talked bravely about George Carlin and his famous “seven words you can’t say on TV.” Imagine, people getting so upset about mere words! He was preceded by Pete Davidson, whose jokes were, at least in part, about words that may not be said: “Richard Pryor redefined comedy despite tragically giving Chevy Chase the confidence to say the n-word.”
There are far more than seven words you can’t say on television today — words that Jon Stewart would not say on television if you put a gun to his head. We haven’t become a society that is more open to offensive expression — we are a society in which the taboos of one class of people have been supplanted by the taboos of a different, more powerful class of people. So powerful are these taboos that people have been fired for using perfectly respectable words that sound too much like taboo words, most famously, “niggardly.” In ancient times, certain common words were prohibited at times and in situations that were considered especially sensitive on the grounds that those words sounded too much like other words, usually words having to do with death, defeat in war, sickness, that sort of thing. Nothing really changes.
Reticent does not mean hesitant. It means disinclined to speak — maybe hesitant to speak, but not hesitant in general. Do not say: “I was reticent to do anything that would risk hurting my grandmother’s feelings.”
The father said that his daughter had suffered two skull fractures, two brain injuries, broken ribs and burns before he and his wife had adopted her. “My daughter has had her last rights read to her on several occasions as her seizures can be fatal,” he said.
The distressed father and his afflicted daughter have my sympathy. The writer and editor who don’t know rights from rites, less so.
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Home and Away
You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here.
I usually like to end with something inspirational — or even aspirational. This week, I’ll just note that lefty podcaster Will Menaker is, apparently, the dumbest man who has ever lived, and far from the most honest one.
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Maps are political documents, a fact that generally receives very little notice until some cartographer wants to label Israel “Occupied Territory” or to color in Taiwan in a shade different from that of the so-called People’s Republic of China. Pointy-headed little men in Delhi and Islamabad thump their chests over maps of Kashmir. Often, political disputes show up in the pages of National Review — but, sometimes, they are fought out in the pages of National Geographic.
Armies don’t fight wars over the map, though — they fight wars over the territory.
Because we live in a time of high-tech barbarism, we (too) often take an essentially primitive and magical view of how the world works. One common and ancient superstition is the belief in “sympathetic magic,” the notion that people, objects, and events in the real world can be influenced by manipulating symbols associated with them, such as their names (including “secret” or “true” names) or titles and effigies of them (voodoo dolls and the like). Change the map, change the territory? That is superstitious thinking.
In politics, there’s a generous dollop of public relations mixed up with the magic, but we do behave as though we believe that by calling something the “Inflation Reduction Act” we make it an inflation-reduction program, even when, as is the case with the recent Democratic bill by that name, it includes no inflation-reduction measures and a few provisions that are in fact likely to make inflation worse. Trans activists believe that if men dress themselves as women, adopt women’s names, insist on being addressed as though they were women, etc., then they become women — as though “trans woman” were something other than a figure of speech. In a similar but bloodier way, those who advocate a more unregulated approach to abortion manifestly believe that changing how we talk about abortion changes the facts of the case — as though rhetoric and oratory somehow magically trumped biological facts.
And here comes the New York Times with a top-of-the-front-page (“p.i., above the fold,” as we print dinosaurs used to say) piece on abortion law headlined: “Is a Fetus a Person? An Anti-Abortion Strategy Says Yes.” The underline reads: “Fetal personhood, which confers legal rights from conception, is an effort to push beyond abortion bans and classify the procedure as murder. In Georgia, it also means a $3,000 tax credit.”
The nation’s headline-writers have a way of mistaking the map for the territory.
Fetal-personhood laws are part of a “strategy” to end abortion in much the same way that the 13th Amendment was part of a “strategy” to end slavery: In both cases, the “strategy” was to bring the law into harmony with the facts of the case as understood by the activists making the effort to do so. If you have been on the anti-homicide side of the abortion debate for very long, then you surely heard those on the homicidal side of the debate — at least before the Dobbs decision — say something like, “The law says a woman has a right to an abortion, and that’s that.” Or, “There is no law establishing that a fetus has rights that supersede a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy.” (I have it on the authority of the Associated Press that we can once again write “pregnant woman,” which the famously facts-forward news agency now begrudgingly concedes is “acceptable phrasing.”) And, in many cases, that was entirely correct, inviting the answer: “Yes, we know what the law says, or, at least, what the Supreme Court pretends the law says. We mean to change the law.” Much of the conversation around Dobbs simply presented the fact of a legal right to abortion (exnihilated via judicial imperialism) as somehow the end of the conversation, as though there were not questions and issues prior to the law.
The half-literate civics of New York Times headline-writers notwithstanding, the American proposition — which is a theological proposition, as much as that fact embarrasses some secularly minded citizens — has never held that the state, its courts, or constitutions confer rights. The American proposition holds instead that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and that it is the proper business of the law neither to grant nor to revoke such rights — the granting and the revoking of that which is unalienable being both beyond the law’s legitimate scope — but to record, formalize, and provide practical support for such rights, which preexist the law and the state. Our right not to be killed (even by a policeman or an aristocrat) owes to the fact that we are human beings, not to the edict of nine quasi-magical personages wearing ceremonial black robes in Washington.
Of course it matters what the law says, just as it matters how we talk about such issues as abortion. But what matter much more urgently and profoundly are the prior fundamental facts of the case: What happens in an abortion is the intentional killing of an individual human organism at an early stage of development. Either living human individuals have moral significance or they do not. If they have moral significance, then the law must take proper note of that significance — but the law does not create that significance.
If you will forgive my repeating this: There is some irony in the fact that the purportedly secular and scientific thinking of the pro-abortion caucus is keeping alive an old strain of medieval superstition: the doctrine of “quickening” or “ensoulment.” Because the European Christian intellectuals of the Middle Ages were in such great part under the influence of the ancient Greeks, they took the onset of detectable fetal motion, which they called “quickening,” as indicating the presence of a soul, the soul being, in such a view, the animating and dynamic force that gives motion to matter. Many traditions within Islamic law have taken an essentially identical view. (Our worldly and sophisticated progressive friends, who denounce pro-lifers as “Taliban Christians,” should familiarize themselves with the facts of Islamic beliefs about abortion, and, in particular, to the actual treatment of abortion under Taliban rule, which at times has included an inclination to permit the procedure as a means of mitigating family poverty that could have come out of Planned Parenthood literature.) The notion that at birth, or perhaps at some other point late in gestation, a magically transformative event occurs and transforms that meaningless clump of cells into a human being deserving of protection as a “person” under the law is only the ensoulment superstition in modern dress. Many abortion opponents are religious; so are many abortion advocates. But the pro-life position requires no deity and no theology. The same cannot be said of the ensoulment doctrine, which all but demands a hand reaching down from the beyond to deliver the divine spark of life. Biology can tell you what is being killed even if it cannot tell you whether you should kill the organism in question. The modern version of ensoulment/personhood sets that on its head, beginning with the desire to permit the killing and then backfilling in a pretext that effectively asserts that what is to be killed is not human and cannot be human because we want to permit its killing.
In reality, human development unfolds along a mostly seamless arc, not as a series of discrete graduations. The life of the human organism starts in a reasonably well-understood and biologically observable way and then progresses until it reaches its biological conclusion. There is not usually much debate about when a body is dead. The fact that there are occasional ambiguities and “corner cases” does not somehow leave us unable to see what is in front of our faces.
They had less sophisticated tools of biological analysis in the 19th century, but few of those who held property in slaves or who justified such bondage denied that slaves were human beings — what they argued was that slaves were a less worthy form of human being and as such did not deserve to be recognized as persons under the law. (Contrary to what many people seem to think, in the infamous “three-fifths compromise,” it was the slavers who wanted slaves counted as full people and the abolitionists who did not want them counted at all — the planters had no intention of permitting slaves to vote, but they wanted them counted for congressional-apportionment purposes.) As with the case of abortion advocates who would deny the fact of the human character of the unborn, those who justified slavery had explicit and implicit theologies they could muster in the defense of their case, a whole metaphysical battery they could fire at their abolitionist opponents. They could also point to a long-standing legal order supporting their claims. The abolitionists did not have the law on their side, but they had the facts on their side, and the law eventually was made to account for the facts — for reality.
The question of “fetal personhood” cannot be sorted out as though it were exclusively, or even primarily, a legal question. What is in the womb — what is killed in an abortion — is what it is, and the law does not have the power to change that. The law can only recognize reality.
I suppose we could solve the mystery through process of elimination. What’s inside the uterus of a pregnant woman? Is it a rutabaga? No. Is it a half-caf venti latte? No. Is it the Declaration of Independence? No. At some point, we will reach the answer.
But we already know the answer.
Norah Vincent, R.I.P
George Plimpton, one of the founders of the Paris Review, is remembered for his patrician manners and refined accent (think William F. Buckley Jr., only a little less so), as well as a few small movieroles, but one of his great contributions to writing was his advancement of “participatory journalism.” He pulled off some great stunts, such as managing to get himself a spot playing professional football with the Baltimore Colts (he was 44 years old, and they were the defending Super Bowl champions) and trying to join the PGA tour alongside Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. He did standup at Caesar’s Palace and toured with a circus, boxed light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore and came close to getting himself murdered by Leonard Bernstein while performing with the New York Philharmonic. He did these things to write about them, for the amusement and education of his readers.
The late Norah Vincent, a sometime contributor to National Review, was a kind of dark George Plimpton, famous for long-form stunt journalism. She went through a period of passing for a man and wrote her first book, Self-Made Man, about the experience. Distressed by the difficulty of following up that celebrated work, she checked herself into a mental hospital and wrote a book about that: Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin. Like the great Nat Hentoff, she wrote for the Village Voice until her refusal to submit to left-wing orthodoxy made it impossible for her to continue there. (Hentoff ended up at Cato, and Vincent wrote for National Review — what would independent-minded liberals do without the vast right-wing conspiracy?) As the New York Times put it:
Norah Vincent is a little nonplused at the rage she provokes. After all, she is hardly the only young columnist with a shopping cart of views that could stock any good Republican larder. Like her take on abortion (“Ours is a country in which you are ill-advised to be a fetus”). Or on multicultural college curricula (“those nebulous, oh-so-advanced ‘ways of knowing’ are likely to keep you driving a cab or flipping burgers for the rest of your life”). Or AIDS (gay advocates “don’t like to admit” that “gay men must bear the responsibility for the spread of AIDS.”)
The rage, however, is not just about what she writes. It is about who she is and what she now writes for. Since last year, Ms. Vincent has been a freelance columnist for The Village Voice, the granddaddy of alternative weeklies and the voice of the political left. Make that the many political lefts.
She is also a lesbian, which fuels the fury of The Voice’s readers and its staff.
You know how that dumb story goes: If you are gay — or black, or an immigrant, or a woman, etc. — you are not permitted to have your own views. You have your views assigned to you, issued with your ovaries or melanin.
Vincent was a terrific writer and a lively intellectual presence. But her celebrity proved less than durable, and she ran out of stunts to pull. Except the last one: Last month, she had herself put to death in some ghastly suicide room in Switzerland at the age of 53.
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in New Jersey will no longer be Thomas Jefferson Elementary School: It is changing its name because Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.
Alrighty. But has New Jersey heard about . . . New Jersey?
New Jersey was first set up under certain “lords proprietor,” the principal of whom was Sir George Carteret, a baronet and a bigwig in Jersey — old Jersey, the one in the English Channel. In the New World, he made his fortune as a pirate and as one of the largest slave traders of his time and place. At the very least, we’ll have to change the name of Carteret, N.J., and Carteret County, N.C.
But we’ll probably have to change the name of the state, too.
Jersey is an interesting word, the origin of which is a little bit mysterious. It may have come from an old Viking name for the island, but the most likely source of Jersey is the corruption of the Latin Caesarea, which is an old name for Jersey, honoring Julius Caesar. Indeed, when New Jersey was referred to in Latin (as it was in the 17th-century legal documents creating the colony), the name was rendered NOVA CÆSAREA. Thomas Jefferson owned about 600 slaves; Julius Caesar took more than 500,000 slaves at a single go of it during his conquest of Gaul. The share of slaves in the early Roman Empire was about the same as the share of slaves in the United States in the late 1700s — right around 20 percent of the population, as near as we can tell.
How do you get from Caesarea to Jersey? By means of the ch- sound, I would guess. Just as the name Caesar had taken on a ch- sound by the time of Cesare Borgia, it isn’t too hard to imagine how the pronunciation of Caesarea would be slurred into Chesaria and then Jesaria, with that r sound migrating forward to produce Jersia or something like that. This is speculation, obviously, but it doesn’t seem wildly unlikely.
In any case: If you can’t have an elementary school named for Thomas Jefferson, you sure as heck can’t have a state named in honor of Julius Caesar, even indirectly.
On a related front: When are the champions of the separation of church and state going to get around to taking notice of the fact that every third place name in the Southwest and West is explicitly Christian, from San Antonio through Santa Fe, N.M., to Los Angeles to Sacramento, Calif., and back down to Corpus Christi, Texas? Get with the program, people!
Never mind what the contemporary AP Stylebook tells you — stick with the old AP Stylebook when it comes to under way. That which is under way is on the way, and there is no need to squish the words together into one new fake word in either case. But a pedestrian tunnel that goes under the street is an underway. Different words for different things.
And speaking of under . . . an underline, or deck, is the part of a headline that comes beneath the main headline, as in the first item referencing the New York Times above. It isn’t a subhead; a subhead appears in the main body of the text, breaking up the copy into sections.
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Today is the feast day of Saint Rose of Lima, the first person born in the Americas to be canonized. Peruvians, who are somewhat less ashamed of their religious patrimony than Americans, put her image on their highest-denomination banknote, though she had very little use for money, living a life of extraordinary penance. She was born Isabel Flores de Olivia, with “Rose” being a nickname, a fitting one by all accounts. She is the patron saint of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and some people object to there being such a patroness, Christianity having arrived in the Americas with the conquerors. It is true that Saint Rose’s example has been too seldom followed, by conquerors, by clerics, or by anybody else. Not many Roses out there — lots of thorns. We study the lives of the saints not because they are magic, but because sometimes a map really is very useful.
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With Rushdie, against the Fanatics
Not long after I moved to New York City in 2008, I went to an event at the New York Public Library, a debate between Bernard-Henri Levi and Slavoj Žižek, the subject of which was “Violence and the Left in Dark Times.” As if to personify the dangers to intellectual life presented by the intersection of political radicalism and violence, seated together were Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had only recently relocated to the United States from the Netherlands, and the novelist Salman Rushdie, who had been living under a death sentence handed down in 1989 by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran in response to his novel The Satanic Verses. I thought to myself: “That’s where the bomb will go off.”
There was no bomb. Not then. Not yet.
Hirsi Ali these days is a U.S. citizen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, the wife of British historian Niall Ferguson, and the mother of charming children. Salman Rushdie, for his part, is in a hospital recovering from knife wounds — stabbed in the liver, likely to lose an eye, arm nerves severed, on a ventilator, for a time unable to speak — inflicted by a California-born Tehran-terror fanboy. If it seems that Hirsi Ali has been luckier, don’t envy her: One of the events precipitating her move to the United States was her being forced to vacate a secret secured house in the Netherlands after neighbors complained that her presence put them at serious risk. She remains on a standing al-Qaeda hit list.
Rushdie is the best-known practitioner of an incredibly vital and unruly stream of English-language literature with roots in India, one that includes the famous Indian writers you probably know but also many treasures who are less known in the United States, such as the late Khushwant Singh (read his Delhi: A Novel) and Raj Kamal Jha, with whom I had the pleasure of working at the Indian Express many years ago. It was while working in Delhi that I got my first hint of the danger in writing: I inadvisedly used the word terrorist in a headline, and was informed, patiently, that we could call them militants or ultras or things of that sort, but that they objected to being called terrorists, and, if they were called that, they were liable to murder one of our workers. “But isn’t that . . . terrorism?” I asked, stupidly. “Yes,” came the answer, “but you don’t drive a truck.” Around the same time, some of my colleagues and I discovered the body of a young man who had been hanged outside a slum near where I lived for getting involved with a girl of a different religion.
When I was growing up, those of us who thought of ourselves as intellectually sophisticated (often there was no evidence for this) took it as given that religion itself was the problem, that religion inspired fanaticism, and that the only kind of humane religion was the sort practiced by people who don’t really believe in it very much — in which case, why not go all the way to a comfortable agnosticism if not all the way to a more militant atheism? We were, of course, wrong about that, as we were about so much. Salman Rushdie was brutally stabbed over a perceived slight to the Prophet Mohammed taken up as convenient political cause by an Iranian fanatic who died not long after handing down the fatwa against the novelist, attacked by a man who had not been born at the time of the original controversy. About the same time, an FBI office in Cincinnati was attacked by a Navy veteran enraged by a perceived slight to Donald Trump, who is being investigated for possible violations of the Espionage Act and other possible crimes.
There is a nexus between a certain kind of intellectually unmoored Christianity and Trump idolatry, but the FBI attack, like the fatwa on Rushdie, was essentially political rather than religious. But that distinction is not entirely airtight: Religions end up having political aspects: At various times, both Islam and Catholicism have been pronounced incompatible with liberal democracy on the grounds that they are political programs as much as they are religions. (Nobody much thinks that about Catholicism anymore, except for a few dotty Catholics.) Political movements take on cultic characters, both those organized around particular personalities (Donald Trump, Adolf Hitler, Juan Perón, Gamal Abdel Nasser, etc.) and those that are not exclusively personal, such as Marxism or environmentalism. (See “Tales from the Carbon Cult,” National Review, December 2, 2021.) Religious and political fanaticism, religion-analogues such as animal rights, diet and fitness fads, even non-political conspiracy literature (Who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays?) all work in the same way in that they offer insider positioning to outsiders (the secret knowledge makes one an initiate) and confer status through membership in a votive community. There is a reason there is so much crossover in conspiracy lunacy: Lyndon LaRouche, for a generation the most notable conspiracy nut in American political life, also cared deeply about the tuning of musical instruments: If you are not familiar with the “conspiracy” regarding A-440Hz tuning, you can go a long way down that rabbit hole and not hit bottom. Look at the political nuts or religious fanatics in your life and see how many of them are heavy into genealogy, another expression of our endless search for personal meaning.
Against fanaticism, we have — what? Literature and music, love, friendship, humor, and, with the help of skilled doctors and our prayers, the continuing work of Salman Rushdie and other geniuses of his kind, who help to steer us away from the brutal and toward the humane, away from the ridiculous toward the reasonable.
As the coal miners’ song asked: Which side are you on?
And If Rushdie Is Too Heavy for You . . .
May I recommend Kenneth Branagh’s latest film, Belfast, which is beautiful and sweet, and which looks at fanaticism from the point of view of a child. It is also interesting in that in the American tradition, our immigrants’ stories usually start upon arrival, whereas Belfast tells the story of the events on the earlier side of the life-bisecting event of immigration. It is, as some of the critics have noted, a little mawkish in parts, but I don’t think the film really suffers much from that.
It also was fun to see the great Belfast-born actor Ciarán Hinds playing an Irishman for a change rather than Julius Caesar or Aberforth Dumbledore or Roy Bland or Mance Rayder. I detest the whole “You can’t play a deaf French homosexual unless you are a deaf French homosexual” idiocy, but there is a kind of rightness in a homecoming.
Words about Words
Right-wing Catholic militancy is an interesting subject. I don’t often give my former colleagues over at That August Journalistic Institution editorial advice, but they should try to find someone who is not functionally illiterate to write about the subject.
(Jay Nordlinger has been working to resurrect the meaning of the word colleague, which means someone who works in the same field though not necessarily at the same institution; under the Nordlingerian influence, Jonah Goldberg has taken to pointing out that we are former co-workers but remain colleagues. I think of the ladies and gentlemen of That August Journalistic Institution as being in many cases former colleagues in both senses of the word, so many of them unhappily having given up journalism for whatever low thing it is they’re doing now.)
Daniel Panneton’s essay on dank rosary-bead memes is slight and silly; it has been widely mocked and deserves to be. The errors begin with the headline (for which Panneton presumably bears no blame), which claims, referencing rosary beads: “Now ‘radical-traditional’ Catholics are bringing a sacrament of their own to the movement.” Rosary beads, of course, are not a sacrament – they are a counting device. An editor with even a passing familiarity with Catholic thinking would know that there are seven sacraments – baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, reconciliation, anointing the sick, holy orders, and marriage – none of which is an object. This isn’t a case of specialized jargon and common usage being at odds: Merriam-Webster defines sacrament as “a Christian rite (such as baptism or the Eucharist) that is believed to have been ordained by Christ and that is held to be a means of divine grace or to be a sign or symbol of a spiritual reality,” meaning ceremonies rather than objects.
Rosary itself is a vague word — properly, it refers to the compound prayer rather than to the counting device, which is superfluous to praying the Rosary if your memory is sufficient. That being the case, I’d normally write “rosary beads,” but maybe uppercase Rosary for the prayer and lowercase rosary for the device is useful. I’ll give that some thought. But in no case does “become Church Militants” make any sense. “Church Militant” is one of those formulations like “attorney general,” in which the adjective is placed archaically behind the noun, hence “attorneys general” rather than “attorney generals.” Militant is an adjective describing Church, and hence not something an individual can become. I suppose an individual can become a church — there is precedent! — but that is not what the author is trying to say in his fumbling way. There is such a thing as a man who is a militant, but that is not what the Militant in Church Militant means.
As George Orwell noted, confused writing goes with confused thinking. Panneton writes a good deal of empty prose, such describing an organization “that actively campaigns against LGBTQ acceptance in the Church.” Actively is a hollow intensifier — is there a way to non-actively campaign against LGBTQ acceptance? Even Mohandas K. Gandhi rejected the term “passive resistance.”
(About LGBTQ: As an irritated gay man recently observed, everything to the right of the G is straight people seeking attention. But why not go the whole hog with LGBTQQIAAP2S+?)
An ongoing irritation: “Many prominent American Catholic bishops advocate for gun control.” No, they advocate gun control. Beyond the usage, there is the religious issue: Bishops — even prominent ones! — enjoy no special grace to speak to such issues, and generally lack expertise in them. The views of prominent bishops are of no more standing on the gun-control debate than are the views of prominent cooking-show hosts.
A little more vocabulary: “In the 1930s and ’40s, the ultramontane Catholic student publication Jeunesse Étudiante Catholique regularly used the concept to rally the faithful.” Ultramontane is another one of those words you have to be careful with: It does not mean right-wing or conservative, though it often overlaps with right-wingery and conservatism. Ultramontane means pope-centered, an attitude toward church affairs characterized by extraordinary deference to the pope and his prerogatives. (Ultramontanism was born in France, from which point of view the Vatican is “beyond the mountains,” hence ultramontane.) Conservative Catholics got pretty ultramontane back in the days of Pope John Paul II, but are a good deal less so — and that is healthy! — in the time of Pope Francis, who is seen as a right-winger at home but is regarded as a Marxist whack-a-doodle by conservative American Catholics. (My own view is that Pope Francis is neither especially left-wing nor especially right-wing, but a little bit intellectually lazy and politically naïve. Asked about the pope’s apparent anti-capitalism, one of his principal advisers — a man who admires and likes and maybe even loves him — said: “Oh, he doesn’t really know anything about that.” (I am paraphrasing.) “He probably has never read a serious economics book in his life, and he isn’t interested in listening to anything anybody has to say about those issues.” A more charitable way of putting that would be that he is a pastor rather than an ideologue.) The journal referenced was part of the wider Catholic Action universe, which went through ultramontane periods and periods during which it was at odds with the papacy and the hierarchy, as many rightist Catholics are today.
And more: “Militia culture, a fetishism of Western civilization, and masculinist anxieties have become mainstays of the far right in the U.S. — and rad-trad Catholics have now taken up residence in this company.” Panneton misses a chance here, choosing the sexualized fetishism rather than the more traditionally Christian idolatry. (Fetishization probably would be more correct than fetishism.) I am not convinced that a preference for one’s own civilization constitutes a fetish in the formal or informal sense of that word — perhaps Panneton is one of those sophomores scandalized by the notion that “one’s own civilization” is a meaningful phrase in a multicultural world — but one might make a persuasive case (as many have in the past) that idolatry is at the heart of fascism, a fact that presents some sticky issues for right-wing Catholic nationalists and conservative Christians of all sorts. It seemed so to T. S. Eliot back in the 1930s.
And yet more: “Many radical-traditional Catholic men maintain the hard-line position that other forms of Christianity are heretical, and hold that Catholics alone adhere to the one true Church.” The name for the school of thought that the Catholic Church is the one true church and that Protestantism is heretical is . . . Catholicism. Or, as the current doctors of the church put it in our gentler times, Catholic teaching holds that many of the fundamental doctrines of Protestantism are heretical, “sola scriptura” prominent among them. That is the meaning behind such euphemisms as “real but imperfect communion.”
If Panneton’s argument is to be that “radical” and “right-wing” Catholicism is simply a Catholicism that takes Catholic teaching seriously, then he is doing the radicals’ work for them.
That August Journalistic Institution does have at least one religiously literate critic who writes an informed way about these issues, a fellow by the name of David French — or Dave Ultramontane, as seen from the Vatican.
Count me among those who can’t work up a head of steam to get scandalized about the use of gun imagery or military imagery in literature about “spiritual warfare” or intellectual or moral warfare, which is hardly without precedent, from the Bible to modern American social theorists.
“Six Weeks of Hell,” reads the New York Times headline, but the body copy is slightly different: “It was the beginning of six weeks of ‘hell,’ said Vasiliy, 37, who like most people interviewed for this article declined to give his surname for fear of reprisals.”
First: Let us praise the New York Times for its excellent coverage of the Ukraine war. The Times is basically worthless on national politics, gun issues, and religion, but it remains indispensable for the wider world of news outside of the hot-button issues. The relative quality of the Times’ political coverage and its general-news coverage is, obviously, much more an indictment of its management than of its reporters — the paper obviously has the juice to get the job done, and its incompetent political coverage is a matter of choice.
Second: About capitalizing hell or Hell. National Review generally lowercases it, but, if I were copy dictator, I’d say uppercase: Hell either is a real place, as many Christians believe, or it is a specific imaginary place — in either case, it should be regarded as a proper noun rather than a formerly proper noun that has lost its flavor, like aspirin or zipper. (Levis, Xerox, and, in Texas, Coke have had to fight off attempts at what one critic calls genericide, stripping a copyrighted name of its unique status.) We should capitalize Hell for the same reason we capitalize Valhalla, Hades, Gehenna, Xanadu, El Dorado, etc.
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Home and Away
You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here.
Today is the Feast of St. Roch, who is not, I am sad to say, the patron saint of rock. He is the patron saint of dogs, which I’d have guessed was St. Bernard. St. Roch was a wealthy nobleman who gave away his fortune and spent his life caring for the poor. After ministering to those suffering from plague, he contracted plague himself, and went into a forest to die alone. He was befriended by a dog, who saved his life. Dogs are like that.
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Many Cracked Eggs, No Omelet
One of the most damaging legacies of the Trump era is that much of the Republican Party — and a tragically large share of the conservative movement that sustains it — has come to believe, mistakenly, that bullsh** is the path to power.
The thing is, it isn’t. It is easy to play make-believe with willing marks in an age of hermetically sealed social-media echo-chamber discourse, but actually lying successfully to people who aren’t already inclined to play along is pretty hard — and expensive, both in economic and reputational terms.
The actual political record of the Trump coalition should show the weakness of the bullsh** strategy. Donald Trump and his personality-cult politics managed to win one election, defeating a singularly toxic, corrupt, exhausted, used-up Hillary Rodham Clinton, a previously failed candidate so inept and feckless that she seemed to have forgotten the most elementary basics of politics, like how to go out and ask for votes. What followed that Pyrrhic victory was a rout of historic proportions: The inept Trump team failed to get any major legislation through Congress on the president’s hallmark issues during the time when Republicans controlled both houses, and then Republicans proceeded to lose control of the House and the Senate before handing the presidency over to the Democrats — a reverse trifecta not seen since Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression. Trump himself became one of only ten elected presidents to seek a second term and lose — underperforming his immediate predecessors Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, along with such figures as Richard Nixon (reelected in a 49-state landslide in 1972) and Woodrow Wilson. The Republican Party is in disarray, positioned to forfeit: a Senate race in Pennsylvania to a hobbled stroke victim after nominating Mehmet Oz, a television quack and Turkish citizen who did not live in the state before seeking the office; the Pennsylvania governor’s race, after letting Democrat money help kook-fringe conspiracy nuts nominate a kook-fringe conspiracy nut as the GOP candidate; a Georgia Senate seat after nominating crackpot celebrity Herschel Walker, who seems to have more children than Rehoboam. In Arizona, Republicans have nominated conspiracy kooks for governor, the Senate, secretary of state, and attorney general. The scene in Michigan is much the same.
It is not certain, or even likely, that all of these candidates will lose — it is certain that they all deserve to lose.
It is also certain that Republicans are not getting what they say they want out of politics right now when it comes to policy outcomes, but instead they seem to be satisfied with the childish politics of catharsis. And, really, that is where Republicans are: If Liz Cheney had served in the Ronald Reagan cabinet, she would have been one of its most conservative members if not its most conservative member; she’s on the outs with Republicans, who prefer the Jewish-space-lasers doofus from Georgia and the Colorado cretin who insists that January 6 was the new 1776.
Joe Biden is president, Nancy Pelosi is speaker of the House, Chuck Schumer is the Senate majority leader, and Donald Trump still can’t get a Twitter account. So much for so much winning.
But it’s a tough time for liars, kooks, and misfits outside of elected office, too.
Alex Jones, the risible conspiracy entrepreneur, will have to pay the families of the dead from the Sandy Hook massacre some tens of millions of dollars after losing a defamation case brought in response to his claiming that the event was staged and that the dead children and survivors were “crisis actors,” performers brought in to create a fictitious crime scene as a pretext for attacking Americans’ Second Amendment rights. Jones is a frothing phony, of course; 99.44 percent cynical profiteer with only a touch of genuine kook in him. He isn’t stupid or crazy, but his audience is, and he knows it, and made a good living from that stupidity and craziness, for a while.
But that sort of thing is not limited to the Alex Joneses of the world. Julie Kelly of American Greatness claims that January 6 also was put on by “crisis actors,” and claims that former police officer Michael Fanone of the D.C. Metropolitan Police is one such “crisis actor.” American Greatness is crap — if Breitbart is contemptible dumb people writing dumb stuff, American Greatness is contemptuous smart people writing dumb stuff — but it is not Alex Jones–style fringe crap: That imbecilic outlet is the journalistic home of such conservative worthies as my friend and New Criterion editor Roger Kimball, former National Review writer Victor Davis Hanson, that dopey Michael Anton creep, etc. Kelly’s conspiracy kookery is indistinguishable from Alex Jones’s, but she has been a regular on Tucker Carlson’s show and other Fox News programs.
Alex Jones’s company filed for bankruptcy in July. It should have filed for moral bankruptcy years ago, along with a large section of the so-called conservative media.
Things like this unwind slowly, but they do unwind. One America News Network has been dumped by DirectTV and Verizon, its only remaining major carriers. (“Because these wings are no longer wings to fly / But merely vans to beat the air.”) Whatever diminished form it takes as it limps on will still be subject to ongoing defamation litigation by Dominion, the voting-systems company that was the target of an insane right-media smear campaign following Donald Trump’s ignominious defeat in 2020, a lawsuit in which billions of dollars are being sought from Fox News, ONAN, and Newsmax, three grimy propaganda operations that will not let the facts stand in the way of their sycophancy. Another voting-technology company, Smartmatic, is seeking similar damages for similar reasons. As with the kooks Republicans have nominated as candidates, it is not certain, or even likely, that all of these liars and shills will lose the lawsuits filed against them, but it is certain that they deserve to lose. The classical criteria for a libel claim are that an assertion must be: (1) false (2) defamatory (3) made with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth. “Reckless disregard for the truth” is a prerequisite for working at those outlets.
Lying is free — until it isn’t. Then, it gets expensive, indeed.
The perplexing thing I hear from conservative “realists” and Republican Party types is that we old-fashioned non-insane conservatives have to learn to live with the kooks and cultists and liars because they are our ticket to power. I am reminded of George Orwell’s pithy response upon being told by a true-believing Stalinist that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet:
“Where’s the omelet?”
As every good con artist knows, the mark always participates in his own con. The psychology behind that is obvious enough if you have been around long enough: The elderly widow or widower cherishes the illusion of the young suitor’s love more than the money and the jewelry that is going to go missing; the charlatan faith-healer and the lottery ticket are really the same product — a moment’s relief from despair — at different price points; the insecure philistine cares more about being able to say that his car once belonged to Jon Voight than he cares about the truth of things. At some level, these people who have convinced themselves that they are part of a patriotic revolution must understand that all they really are is a way of ensuring that Sean Hannity never has to fly commercial, that Chris Ruddy can fill up his kiddie pool with Macallan Lalique Cire Perdue for Labor Day weekend, and that nobody ever figures out that Donald Trump Jr. has spent the last ten years walking around with change for a dollar in his hand trying to figure out how to lace up a pair of penny loafers.
In the meantime, Biden et al. are shoveling money out of the Treasury door as fast as their arthritic old shoulders will allow while Republicans are listening to Marjorie Taylor Greene explain the hidden message in “Jews in Space.” Because there’s no dignity in it but it still beats the hell out of teaching Crossfit classes in Shitheel, Georgia.
The rich get richer, and the stupid stay poor.
Words about Words
A reader, writing earlier in the summer — before August, which matters — asks:
What is your take on “last” and “next” when used with days and months? Jay Nordlinger wrote “When he launched his all-out assault on Ukraine, last February, pro-Putin voices got quieter.” In my mind, I saw that “last February,” and thought of 2021. I would have written “on Ukraine in February” or “on Ukraine this February.” For example, if someone were to tell me they are going shark hunting next August, I would think 2023, not 2022.
The first rule of English usage is that if you think Jay Nordlinger is wrong, you’re wrong. Seriously — I proofed the man’s copy for years, and see his emails and texts and such, and he doesn’t get things wrong. I saw one actual typo that I can recall when reading Jay, and no genuine errors. (It’s a typo if you know it’s wrong, an error if you don’t.) And, per usual, I think Jay has it right here.
Think about the word last — what it indicates is the final or most recent item in a series: “next before the present, most recent” as Merriam-Webster puts it. So, if you are writing in May and you mean the previous August, you could write “last August.” You could also just write “August” if the context makes things clear (in this case, the presence of a past-tense word would do it), etc. If you meant two Mondays ago, you might say, “Monday before last.”
Which brings me to . . .
Rampant Prescriptivism Last vs. past — that’s one I sometimes have to think about.
Last is a weird word in that it has a sense of continuity and a sense of finality: “Over the course of the last year” vs. “In the last year of Eisenhower’s presidency.” (Or “The Last in Line.”) Past, being related to passed as well as the noun past, can be subtle, too. In general, you want to use last to describe a period of time or an episode that currently is ongoing but approaching its end: “I am happy to report that have seen more inspiring stories in the last week than I have ever seen before.” Past, on the other hand, describes things now gone by, but only recently: “As we begin a new era, we should evaluate what we have done and what we have failed to do in the past decade,” or the more poetical “the decade past,” or “the decade now past.”
Do You Put Yogurt on Your Pancake?
You should try it.
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Home and Away
You can buy my last (but not final!) book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here.
As you know, I love A Man for All Seasons, both the play and the famous film with Paul Scofield. I also like the Wolf Hall novels, which take a very different view of Thomas More — pitiless fanatic rather than humane man of reason. If you want to get a better sense for which characterization is closer to the man himself, there is a lot of very interesting stuff in Saint Thomas More: Selected Writings, edited by John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne, with a preface by Joseph W. Koterski, S.J.
Today is the feast day of St. Edith Stein, one of the truly remarkable figures of the 20th century. She was a German Jewish philosopher and author of more than a dozen books, including the famous On the Problem of Empathy and Finite and Eternal Being. She converted to Christianity, became a Discalced Carmelite nun — discalced means forgoing shoes — inspired by St. Teresa of Avila. She was a brilliant and holy woman, and, because she lived in a time and place unfit for such people, she was murdered in an Auschwitz gas chamber on this day in 1942.
Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about politics, language, culture, wooden bricks, strong ales, and other items of interest. The Tuesday is available only to NRPlus members: If you would like to become one of those — and I hope you will — you can sign up here. I think you’ll find it worth the modest expense.
Raising the Gas Tax after Trying to Cut the Gas Tax
Senator Joe Manchin, in his wisdom, has decided to join the Biden administration and his fellow Democrats in Congress to — wait! what? — raise the gasoline tax.
In an underhanded way, of course.
You will recall that in the early summer, as gasoline prices were skyrocketing, President Joe Biden, the fearful little man in the White House, called for a three-month suspension of the federal sales tax on gasoline. A little somethin’-somethin’ to help out all them pickup-driving Joe Sixpack types out there in the great expansive hydrocarbon-powered boonies — you know, voters. It was a dumb idea on its own, and it was a dumb idea because it was offered as a substitute for the smart idea, i.e., getting Uncle Stupid’s big fat foot off the neck of the U.S. energy industry so that prosperity may emerge organically. It was a quintessentially political proposal, one that would create the impression of doing something and offer a synthetic sense of urgency — the sort of action that is to real policy as stevia is to sugar.
But there was a kind of reflexive economic truth to it: Policies that make gasoline more expensive make gasoline more expensive. And while Democrats do intend to make hydrocarbon energy not only more expensive but prohibitively expensive at some point in time, at that moment the rising price of fuel was politically inconvenient. Climate action can’t wait — except when it can.
But now, under the Joe Manchin–Chuck Schumer climate-folly bill — in which the Democrats propose to decrease inflation by flooding the economy with hundreds of billions of dollars in fresh federal spending, akin to treating diabetes with intravenous injections of Mountain Dew — the gasoline tax is going to go up by billions of dollars a year. The tax Manchin et al. mean to raise is not the one you see imposed at the pump, but the so-called Superfund tax, which lapsed in the 1990s but will be, if Manchin and Schumer have their way, coming back with a vengeance.
The tax is meant to fund federal environmental-mitigation costs at Superfund sites, and it takes the form of an excise on domestic and imported crude oil, as well as on imported petroleum fuels. The original Superfund tax also included a tax on certain chemicals and related “taxable substances,” and that part of the tax already had been revived by the infrastructure bill signed into law in November 2021. The infrastructure bill had the effect of doubling the prior tax rate on the targeted chemicals, as Deloitte figures it.
And there is current progressive environmental policy in miniature: a cheap symbolic I’m-on-your-side gesture to try to buy off the rubes with one hand while sticking the other hand into their deliciously pillageable pockets. The economics of “tax incidence” — meaning the question of where the burden of a tax falls not de jure but de facto — can get pretty complicated, but it is a safe bet that whether the tax is tacked on at the end of the supply chain or upstream, it will put upward pressure on consumer energy prices.
In much the same way that lottery proceeds are notionally intended to benefit politically popular projects such as schools or veterans’ care but end up being dumped into the same revenue hole as everything else, the Superfund tax is, like all taxes, fungible. The marketing material may say that it is being used to clean up environmental-disaster zones, but, as with every other dollar paid in federal taxes, some 80 percent or so of that revenue will go to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other health-care subsidies, national defense, and interest on the debt, which is where almost all federal spending goes.
I am sympathetic to Pigouvian taxes of an environmental character and think there is a pretty good case for a carbon tax to account for the externalities of hydrocarbon consumption. But this is not that — it is nothing nearly so honest. This is simply playing both sides of gas-price politics at the same time, attaching some notional revenue to the climate package to fortify the pretense that it is going to be deficit-neutral while simultaneously burdening the energy industry and setting it up as the scapegoat in case of continued energy-price inflation. You know: “We are trying to make them pay their fair share, and they are unfairly punishing consumers in the service of their bottomless blah blah greed blah blah.”
You can’t blame 100 percent of the price of gasoline on Joe Biden or Joe Manchin. But if the bill becomes law more or less as written, you’ll be able to blame them for an additional 16 cents a gallon or so.
Another Call for the Max TaxWikipedia reports that after the nonrenewal of the Superfund excise, “the burden of the cost was shifted to taxpayers” — as though petroleum and chemical companies were not, you know, massive taxpayers.
Chevron reported in March 2022 that in the past decade it has paid $64 billion in income taxes and another $48 billion in non-income taxes to the several dozen jurisdictions around the world that tax it. That’s not just a ton of money — that’s about a thousand tons of money in stacked-up $100 bills. The notion that these companies are not taxpayers is exceptionally asinine.
I will take this opportunity to renew my call for a maximum tax.
Our lefty friends sometimes push for a high minimum tax, or even for a “maximum income,” an income at which the marginal tax rate would be 100 percent. This is the thinking of Barack Obama, who once said: “At a certain point, you’ve made enough money.” (That’s the kind of thing you say before your $65 million Netflix payday.) I take a different view: that at a certain point, you’ve paid enough tax. People think I’m joking about this, but I’m only half-joking at most: I don’t care how much money you make, once you’ve paid $1 million in income tax, I think that’s enough — forever. I don’t know what Senator Warren thinks is your “fair share,” but if you have handed over $1 million to the Treasury, you have done your part. For businesses, maybe cap total taxes at $1 billion.
We Americans are all good egalitarians, right? I don’t want to hear about how Taxpayer X, who has put billions of dollars into the national budget, hasn’t paid his “fair share” — coming from people who haven’t paid enough taxes to pay for a Honda Civic.
The Max Tax — an idea whose time has come!
And Furthermore . . .
On the eve of the Normandy invasion, the commander of Allied forces, General Dwight Eisenhower, wrote a short speech. It was the speech he didn’t want to give — the statement he would make in case Operation Overlord was a failure.
He made some last-minute edits, in one sentence striking the words “this particular operation” and inserting instead “my decision to attack.” My decision. Contemporary American life has a whole genre of speech dedicated to avoiding statements of personal accountability — “mistakes were made” — but General Eisenhower did not write that way. He wasn’t a brilliant writer like Grant or Jefferson, but he was a clear and direct one, ending his statement: “The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
That wasn’t, strictly speaking, true: There were dozens and dozens of variables that were beyond his control, and any number of reasons the invasion might have failed through no fault of the supreme commander. But it was General Eisenhower giving the orders while others executed them — accountability, in his understanding, began at the top.
Can you imagine the speech Supreme Allied Commander Donald J. Trump would have given if he had been the commander at Normandy and the invasion had failed?
Not that Trump would ever find himself in that position. When his country came calling, he showed himself to be a coward and dodged the draft by means of a made-up case of bone spurs that somehow magically cleared up — without treatment — as soon as the danger of service was safely passed. Trump does have the most-interesting doctors.
Still, you can imagine it:
“Our invasion was perfect! People are saying that it was the single greatest military campaign ever conceived, and I am awarding myself the Distinguished Service Cross. People are saying that I should win the Medal of Honor, but Democrats in Congress won’t give it to me — very unfair. SAD! Haters are saying our invasion failed, that we lost — fake news! We won. We won, and it wasn’t even close. I’m thinking about suing them for defamation. I have the world’s greatest military experts saying that our invasion was perfect, that nobody could have done what I did losing only 155,000 troops, which was a terrible thing to watch on Fox News. All the best military analysts say we won: Bill O’Reilly, Ted Nugent, Jon Voight, who was very strong in Pearl Harbor — I mean Pearl Harbor the movie, playing FDR, who has been very unfair to me . . . .”
Trump is still insisting that he won in 2020, because he is too weak and too much of a coward to face the facts: that he wasn’t very good at the job, in the judgment of most of the American people, who set him aside in favor of a dusty can of tuna with hair plugs. He is expected to announce another campaign for the presidency any day now. His plan, if he wins, is personal government. If he loses? We can assume that it will be more of the same: lying and whimpering.
That, and making eyes at men of the sort he would like to be: Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, Mohammed bin Salman.
I’m not supposed to call the Trump boys Uday and Qusay anymore, and, besides, Saddam Hussein is long gone — but Eric Trump has searched all of Arabia and come up with an entirely different murdering anti-American son of a bitch to suck up to, making an appearance at Saudi potentate Mohammed bin Salman’s PR-project golf tournament carrying a golf bag emblazoned with an American flag and the legend: “Trump 2024.” Donald Trump has praised the Saudi initiative, too. Jamal Khashoggi was not a U.S. citizen, but he was a resident of the United States who worked for an American newspaper, and Mohammed bin Salman had him cut up like a fryer chicken. He did that on Trump’s watch, knowing that Trump, who has a weak man’s enrapturement with strongmen, would let it slide. He wasn’t wrong. You’ll recall that super-spy Donald Trump insisted that the CIA had it all wrong.
I don’t think very much of Harry S. Truman (or, if you insist, Harry S Truman), but I do think highly of “the buck stops here.”
The magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my Country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens, a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with dispondence, one, who, inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpractised in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.
That was George Washington’s self-assessment upon taking office as president.
We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.
That was Abraham Lincoln’s plan to make America great again.
And Donald Trump’s legacy?
“They cheated like hell.”
And not: “The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
Donziger Update From Jack Fowler — a reminder that the attempt to extort gazillions of dollars from Chevron on phony environmental grounds was a straight-up racketeering operation undertaken by Steven Donziger, a lefty lawyer and sometime Obama crony, with the assistance of a number of highly connected New York Democrats and progressive celebrities with a financial interest in the scam. National Review and a few others have told the story, but it remains nonetheless an untold story for too many Americans, particularly environmentalists.
Words about Words
I once described Lawrence O’Donnell as “an ass of exceptional asininity.” The joke there is that what asinine literally means is “ass-like,” figuratively “extremely dumb, foolish, ignorant.” The scientific name for a donkey is Equus asinus.
Et ait in maxilla asini in mandibula pulli asinarum delevi eos et percussi mille viros.
“And he said: With the jawbone of an ass, with the jaw of the colt of asses, I have destroyed them, and have slain a thousand men.”
As anybody who has ever covered a presidential campaign knows good and well, you should never underestimate the power of the jawbone of an ass in motion.
Another word of interest, a much more obscure one: nogging.
I spent the weekend with some architects and engineers and builder types, and one of them mentioned that in Colonial-era houses in New England, some of the windows on the upper floors of houses have a sturdy layer of brick directly beneath the window opening — the idea being to protect a shooter firing a musket from the window from return fire, making the windows function something like the crenels (or embrasures) on castles’ battlements. The use of bricks in such a way is called nogging, a general term for brick in-fill between timbers or framing. If you have seen old Tudor-style houses with exposed half-timbers on the exterior filled in with brick, that brick is nogging. Sometimes nogging is visible, and sometimes it is covert.
What is interesting is that bricks used to fill in wooden beams are nogging, but nogging also means wooden blocks used to fill in brick structures — i.e., nogging is one of those words that means two approximately opposite things: brick-filled wood and wood-filled brick. Brick-sized wooden blocks, or nogs, were inserted into brick walls to allow cladding to be nailed up over those walls — the wooden block gave the nails something to be nailed into.
The origin of the word nog is unknown — it seems to refer to wooden pegs at the earliest point in its career. It also refers to a kind of strong ale, giving rise to the modern English drink name “egg-nog.” A nog is a peg, and a nog is a drink, and, as anybody who likes his liquor straight knows, a peg is still a drink in colloquial English, as in “Pour me a peg of that whiskey.”
Whether and how nog as peg or block and nog as kind of alcoholic drink are related is unknown.
But, if you happen to notice a bricklayer working on a Tudor-style house, feel free to compliment him on his nogging, and maybe invite him out for a peg after the work is done. Builders are interesting people — they know things.
Most stylebooks recommend “Harry S. Truman” with the period, even though the “S” didn’t stand for anything and hence is not an abbreviation and hencely hence requires no period — but he usually wrote his name with the period, and it is a good practice, usually, to write people’s names the way they write them. Except for Prince during his symbol phase.
That being said, the soft drink favored by Texans is Dr Pepper, no period.
A reader who thinks I am stupid points out that I made an obvious mistake by writing that the U.S. labor-force participation rate had declined “from 67 percent to 62 percent, a decline of about 7 percent.” No, dummy, it’s 5 percent!
But no, it isn’t: 62 is about 93 percent of 67, and if you reduce 67 by 7 percent, you end up at 62. When you are dealing with changes in percentages, the magnitude of the change is not the same as the number of percentage points in the change. For example, if you have a Covid-infection rate of 50 percent that gets cut to 25 percent, you haven’t cut the rate by 25 percent — you have cut the rate by half, or by 50 percent, which, in this case, means by 25 points. So if the unemployment rate goes down one point, from 5 percent to 4 percent, that is a reduction of one-fifth, or 20 percent, not a reduction of 1 percent.
Getting the arithmetic right doesn’t do you any good if you are confused about what it is you are trying to quantify.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
Home and Away
You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here.
I recently had need to revisit Jay Nordlinger’s Children of Monsters, a very interesting book about the sons and daughters of men such as Mussolini and Stalin. (And Hitler? Maybe.) If you haven’t read it, you should. A phrase from it stuck with me, a description of one of Mussolini’s allies as “Fascista nato e vissuto” – “a fascist by birth and by life.” I have a terrible feeling that I am going to have use for that phrase for a very long time.
From the New Criterion: “Joyce in voice: the Ulysses century” by Dominic Green. “On the many interpretations of Ulysses.”
Speaking of big events from the 1930s — happy birthday to my father, Joe Williamson, who is, like Dwight Eisenhower, a son of Denison, Texas, and who has seen some changes since coming into this world in 1938.
Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about things you might want to know, or things you might find amusing. Some of those things are language, politics, and culture. The Tuesday is available only to NRPlus members: If you would like to become one of those — and I hope you will — you can sign up here. If the price of a subscription seems too high to you, then get a job, hippie.
What We Call Things
We live in a dumb world. Americans have a moral responsibility not to make it dumber than necessary — and Americans have been shirking that responsibility for a few years now.
On Twitter, that great overflowing sewer of American life, our friend Bill Kristol suggested — jokingly, I assume — that Democrats rally behind the singer John Legend if Joe Biden should (for some totally unforeseeable and unknowable and not-at-all-age-related reason!) not complete his term or decline to run again in 2024. His argument: The Ukrainians plucked Volodymyr Zelensky from the world of celebrity, and that has worked out pretty well for them — why not John Legend?
To which some nitwit replied with the complaint: “Kevin D. Williamson told me to grow the f*** up when I said Bill Kristol is a socialist.”
If you think Bill Kristol is a socialist — not somebody who disagrees with you about this or that, not somebody you think has bad political ideas, not somebody you think overreacted to the Trump phenomenon, but a socialist — then, yes, you should, indeed, grow the f*** up. Words mean things, and whatever socialism means, it doesn’t mean, “I think it would be a hoot if Democrats nominated John Legend for president.” I disagree with Bill Kristol about any number of things (and agree with him about many more), but insisting that such disagreements somehow magically transmute Kristol into a socialist is idiotic kid stuff, deserving of contempt.
For years, our progressive friends have insisted that everybody who disagrees with them about anything is a racist, or something like a racist, or a Nazi. It’s dumb and it’s predictable, which is why you could probably write the next ten years’ worth of Jamelle Bouie New York Times columns in a three-day weekend — same boring crap, over and over. For some reason, some conservatives have decided that this habit is something to be emulated. And so now everything they don’t like is socialist, communist, Marxist, etc. It is low buffoonery for low people, but that’s what the popular political conversation is in our time.
Someone who has more patience and a better sense of humor than I have could probably make a fortune writing a Devil’s Dictionary for our time, lampooning the way we use political labels. (My offering: “Country-Club Republican: n., Someone who thinks that Puerto Rico ought to immediately be given statehood . . . in some other country.”) It is tempting to write that our labels have become meaningless, but that is not quite right. They all mean something; in fact, they all mean the same thing: “I hate you.” As George Orwell observed about the word fascism:
It will be seen that, as used, the word “Fascism” is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else. . . .
But Fascism is also a political and economic system. Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition of it? Alas! we shall not get one—not yet, anyway. To say why would take too long, but basically it is because it is impossible to define Fascism satisfactorily without making admissions which neither the Fascists themselves, nor the Conservatives, nor Socialists of any colour, are willing to make. All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.
“Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality” — Orwell was a great maker of lists:
One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.
Sometimes, a word or a phrase is just a shiny object picked up by some otherwise-unoccupied mind. I remember being at one of those weird sad masturbatory alt-right rallies a few years ago, and one of the counter-protesters had, for some reason, fixated on the phrase “full metal jacket.” Maybe he was a fan of the film:
A guy shooting video on his iPhone interviews one of the militiamen, and he’s going on and on about the militiaman’s rifle and its ammunition: “Full metal jacket!” he repeats, over and over, obviously ignorant of the fact that the rifle in question can be loaded only with jacketed ammunition, since this isn’t 1899. A young black woman on a cheerful pink bicycle rides past and pauses to take in the show. The dramatic contrast is of interest to the guy shooting the video, and he points it out to the militiaman. “You’re here with your rifle, with your full-metal-jacket ammunition, and here’s this little girl on her bicycle.” She leans in to speak to him. “Here’s this 30-year-old woman on her bicycle.”
Neocon had a moment there in the George W. Bush years when it was on every Democrat’s lips, presumably because they found it sinister-sounding. Neocon took on a special meaning for the Left that has been picked up by some on the right: “This Republican is a Jew, or at least Jewish-adjacent, and I hate him.” The actual history of neoconservatism is pretty interesting, and people who are genuinely interested in political ideas would benefit from knowing about it. But for most people, it is just an epithet. The original neocons were mainly interested in domestic issues — welfare reform, urban policy, things like that — but, because of the way the term was used in the Bush years, it has come to be associated with a hawkish foreign-policy stance. There are still some people trying to make neoliberal happen — neoliberal meaning, “approximately in line with the editorial stance of the Economist.” Neoliberal got epitheted, too, in its time and place: Guardian-reading types practically spat the word at Tony Blair. But the neoliberal moment seems to have passed us by before the term really caught on, at least in the United States.
(In the golden age, we divided people politically by which newspapers they read, though that was always a bigger thing in the United Kingdom — Guardian people vs. Telegraph people — and elsewhere in Europe, where newspapers mostly have not pretended to “objectivity” the way U.S. newspapers do. In our time, I get the feeling that the people who actually read newspapers are all pretty much on the same side, or close enough to it. When I see somebody reading an actual newspaper now, I almost want to take a picture.)
Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia imbecile, recently told one of those goofy right-wing “news networks” that Republicans should embrace the label “Christian nationalist.” She was as direct as can be about that: “I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists.” “Christian nationalism” is, of course, a particular politico-religious movement with a particular agenda and a particular sensibility — it is the alloy of Putinism and Evangelical sentimentality, and it is, as you might expect, often religiously illiterate. I don’t know if Representative Greene is, in fact, familiar with Christian nationalism. She seems to have just talked herself into the formulation: “We need to be the party of nationalism and I’m a Christian.” Ergo, etc.
We are, indeed, governed by cretins.
On the other hand, there are some genuinely interesting questions of political taxonomy. We often hear that civil-rights legislation was opposed by “conservative Democrats,” or “conservative southern Democrats,” which isn’t exactly right, at least in many cases. Some of those rotten old racist Democrats were conservative as we use the word in U.S. politics, but a great many of them were progressives, champions of the New Deal who were very interested in heavier business regulation and income distribution, etc. Democrat-leaning academics and their media amplifiers have done a nice job over the years defining conservative as racist, at least in that context, while insisting that racist progressive is some kind of oxymoron. I’ve been giving a careful reading to Racial Realignment: The Transformation of American Liberalism, 1932–1965 by Professor Eric Schickler of Berkeley, which is full of interesting observations and analysis pertaining to that question. One of Professor Schickler’s interesting findings is that hostility or indifference toward desegregation and civil-rights reform was strongly correlated with economic conservatism outside the South, among northeastern Republicans, back when those used to be a thing.
My friend and colleague Jonah Goldberg argues that we are in a time when a lot of those –isms and –ists mean less than they used to, that the real political division in the United States (and in the world) is between those who believe in basic things such as the rule of law and democracy and free speech and those who do not. Referencing Albert Jay Nock (who was referencing Scripture), he calls the former the “remnant.”
What I wonder is whether in ten or 20 years, we will even be able to talk comprehensibly about politics and public affairs at all, or whether, Idiocracy-style, “Bill Kristol is a socialist” will be all there is to say.
Every time I mention Idiocracy, I point out that when that film first came out, I criticized it as being too harsh, too unkind, too pessimistic, etc. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Mike Judge is a prophet. If anything, he wasn’t despairing enough.
What Was I Writing about This Time Last Year? . . .
From July 26, 2021:
It is strange and unpredictable what will get Americans’ libertarian hackles up. The Right, which has embraced theatrical self-harm as a kind of weird performative political ritual, is the political home of most vaccine skeptics (and mask skeptics, and Hydroxychloroquine quackery, etc.) and its tribunes worry about vaccinate mandates of different kinds. Steven Holt, a Republican state legislator in Iowa, speaks for many when he calls so-called vaccine passports “un-American,” “unconstitutional,” and “unacceptable.” But I am not sure that is quite right.
Conservatives, including many libertarian-leaning conservatives, traditionally have been comfortable with such measures as registering young men for possible military conscription and placing limits on certain kinds of business transactions or travel during emergencies or out of concern for national security. During World War I, the United States drafted three men for every two volunteers, and the generals sent 116,516 Americans to their deaths in the service of interests that were quite remote from our own national interest. We drafted 10 million for World War II and 2.2 million for Vietnam. It is a peculiar libertarian principle that accepts marching tens of thousands of Americans to their deaths at Meuse–Argonne but balks at seeking to encourage wider vaccination by taking some active measure—presumably some measure short of the prison sentences given to draft resisters.
Words about Words
I guess most of this newsletter has been a “Words about Words” this week. But how about a little more?
I use the word exnihilate fairly often, partly because it’s a really good word that does something no other word quite does, and partly because it’s a little bit of a National Review in-joke, being a WFB word and a very WFB word at that:
The psalmists were great spiritual poets, but it is more credible that their words were inspired than that they were exnihilations.
Exnihilate, from the Biblical Latin ex nihilo, out of nothing. I use this word often in relation to Supreme Court judgments, e.g., the one that exnihilated the right to abortion with no textual basis. A few weeks ago, a reader took me to task for writing “exnihilated out of”: Isn’t the out of contained there in the ex? Of course it is. That formulation is clumsy for the same reason advocate for is inferior to advocate. It is a redundancy, one that repeats itself.
I suspect that we will soon be hearing a great deal about “negative growth” in the economy. As a reader points out, there is no such thing as negative growth. There is contraction, in the case of the economy, or shrinkage, in the case of George Costanza.
Also: One of those things I have to check practically every time is loath vs. loathe. I don’t know why I seem to have a block about this: Loath is the adjective, loathe the verb. As in, “I was loath to let my column go to press without double-checking that, because I loathe making errors of that sort.”
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
Home and Away
Utopian progressivism insists that government is here to bring about justice and the best kind of society. Boring old conservatism says that government is here to protect property. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz picked the wrong school of thought:
Only a few years after opening all of its bathrooms to the general public as a grand social-justice gesture, the coffee chain is closing stores around the country — mostly in big, progressive, Democrat-run cities — because the locations have become too dangerous for customers and staff. Homeless people camp in the bathrooms or make mad scenes in the cafes. So many junkies are using Starbucks restrooms to shoot up that the company has been obliged to install needle-disposal boxes in some of its stores — Welcome to Portland! — and the employees who had to clean up those messes understandably complained about possible exposure to HIV and hepatitis.
The book referenced above, Racial Realignment, is very good reading, particularly if you are interested in the histories of the political parties.
Today is the feast of Saints Anne and Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary, according to tradition and apocrypha. Everybody has parents and grandparents. I do wonder what Jesus’s life was like before His ministry, a period that has been the subject of much speculation and a few novels. “That grandson of yours — what’s that young man doing these days?” Saint Anne is the patron saint of women in labor — a very specialized patronage, to be sure, but who can doubt that in those few hours mothers need all the help they can get?
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Personhood, All the Way
In Chron, the website of the Houston Chronicle, there is a charming (but journalistically incompetent; see below) story about a Texas woman who took the HOV lane, apparently solo, and explained to the police officers who pulled her over to cite her that she was carrying an unborn daughter — and that is a person under Texas law, no?
No, no, quoth the po-po, and they wrote her a ticket — but advised her that she’d probably prevail if she were to fight it in court.
On the narrow technical question: No, an unborn child is not a legal person under Texas law for the purpose of HOV-lane arithmetic. The issue of abortion and legal personhood has not yet advanced to that distant horizon.
In fact, there isn’t any need to define the unborn as a person at all in order to prohibit abortion — the procedure can be prohibited per se independent of the question of legal personhood. To take a ghastly parallel case: Just as there are people who suffer from “gender dysphoria” (a strong sense that a man or woman’s true and authentic self is at odds with his or her sex), there are other kinds of body dysphorias, including something called “body integrity dysphoria,” a disorder in which a person comes to believe that his or her true and authentic self is not a member of the opposite sex but is an amputee. Because we are high-tech barbarians, genital amputations and mutilations are generally medically countenanced as therapy for gender dysphoria, but we as a society have not — yet — accepted as legitimate the practice of amputating other body parts — limbs rather than members — in the service of what I suppose we would have to call “amputee-status-affirming” care modeled on “gender-affirming” care. (Gender-affirming care is, in most cases, sex-denying care, but never mind that for now.) But there are surgeons who will amputate healthy limbs as “therapy” for body-integrity dysphoria, and the issue of permitting or prohibiting such procedures is a live one. It would, of course, be entirely unnecessary to define a healthy leg as a person to prohibit the amputation of it. Likewise, the question of abortion need not necessarily involve the issue of personhood.
Personhood is, of course, an intellectual and moral dodge when it comes to abortion. The facts of the case are clear enough in that what is put to death in an abortion is a (1) living (2) human (3) organism at a very early stage of development. That the tissue in question is living is a given — no need to kill it, otherwise; that it is human is a question that can be answered definitively by genetics; that the tissue is arranged into an organism (as opposed to a fingernail that may be trimmed or a tumor that needs to be removed) is a fact of elementary biology. The issue of personhood is intended not to illuminate or reflect these facts but to obscure or deny them — to make the question of abortion a matter of legal and ethical abstractions rather than a matter of physical facts. There is some irony in this: For centuries, the question of “ensoulment” was a subject of theological debate and inquiry, and the people who see themselves as protecting what they wrongly imagine to be liberal values in our time from “Christian fascists” have in effect reinvented a medieval Christian doctrine and repurposed it for their own brutal and antihuman ends.
Apologies — this started with a lighthearted issue, but, when the subject is abortion, it is difficult to stay lighthearted for very long.
That being written, I do hope the mother in Texas gets her HOV violation thrown out by the court. Texas law does not treat the unborn as a person under the traffic laws, though Texas is among the 38 states that treat the unborn as a person under certain homicide laws. Perhaps that should change, and that HOV-outlaw mom is on to something.
We have as a society long encouraged a certain solicitousness of pregnant women as a matter of courtesy and etiquette: standing to offer a pregnant woman your seat on a crowded train, for example, that sort of thing. Allowing pregnant women to use the HOV lane seems to me like an obvious and easy accommodation to make, an extension of existing principle. And while pregnancy, contrary to the rhetoric of some of the pro-abortion people, is not a disease, it does in many cases inflict a temporary disability; as such, it would seem entirely sensible to allow pregnant women to use parking spaces for the handicapped and to make use of other conveniences intended for the disabled. I imagine there are many other such amenities that could be offered and access to them formalized where needed.
I am not quite ready to sign off on Elizabeth Bruenig’s demand in That August Journalistic Institution that we make pregnancy and childbirth care another federal entitlement for the population at large. (The headline says “free,” but this is National Review, and we know that somebody is paying the bill.) Bruenig cites the case of a young mother who was surprised to learn that her parents’ insurance — because, of course she’s still on her parents’ insurance — didn’t cover most of her pregnancy-related medical bills, a situation she blamed on “misogyny.” College-educated middle-class women lingering on their parents’ insurance and complaining that it is misogyny when they don’t get their way in life are, for some inexplicable reason, Bruenig’s main journalistic interest. (It seems to me rather specific.) I take a dissenting view, that we have enough entitlements for well-off college-educated people and should conserve our social-welfare resources in order to provide more generous benefits for the poor, particularly on the poor who are most likely to be stuck in poverty, as tender as my feelings are toward college-educated young people enjoying parental subsidies into adulthood, married life, and parenthood. (You wouldn’t believe what an MFA in creative writing costs these days!) But maybe that is the country-club Republican in me.
Low-income people are a disproportionately fecund bunch — though this is in part a reflection of the fact that fertility and low incomes both are correlated with youth — and the ugly historical fact is Planned Parenthood and the rest of the eugenics movement were founded to counteract the effects of that conjunction by killing the children of the poor before they could become public burdens or, where possible, to prevent their ever being conceived in the first place. The correlation between low incomes and motherhood is even stronger than you might expect: About 42 percent of the births in the United States in 2020 were to mothers who were receiving Medicaid. That number is even higher in many Republican-leaning states, which tend to be younger, more rural, and home to large immigrant populations: 50.2 percent of mothers were on Medicaid in Alabama, 50.7 in Texas, 61.4 percent in Louisiana, 60.1 percent in Mississippi, etc. Culture matters: Only 22 percent of mothers in Utah were Medicaid recipients.
(Wait — isn’t the GOP the old-people party? Are red states really younger? More than you might expect: The youngest state is Utah, followed in order by Texas, Alaska, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Idaho, while the median age in Connecticut is a full decade older than the median age in Utah. The only solidly Democratic states with younger-than-average populations are California and — just barely — Washington.)
Low incomes correlate with many unhealthy habits and unhealthy situations as well: Some 20 percent of Medicaid mothers smoke during pregnancy. A federal study (based on 2002 data, N.B.) found that one in 20 preterm deaths and almost one in four “sudden infant death” cases were smoking-related. The grievously misnamed Affordable Care Act was supposed (among its many alleged virtues) to reduce smoking among pregnant women, but it does not seem to have had very much effect; in fact, mothers who haven’t finished high school were a little more likely to smoke in 2017 than they were in 2010, the period studied by these scholars. Between the good intention and the good outcome falls the shadow.
While I do not agree with my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru about child tax credits, I do agree with Benedick that “the world must be peopled,” and it makes some sense for our public policies to take at least some account of who is doing the peopling. For example, benefits received through Medicaid for Pregnant Women or the CHIP Perinatal program generally stop 60 days after birth, a policy that probably should be reconsidered.
But we should keep in mind the complexities involved: As it stands, many doctors will not accept new Medicaid patients, partly because of reimbursement rates but also because the program is an administrative pain in the ass of nightmarish proportions. (Doctors lose 17 cents on the dollar to billing problems with Medicaid patients, as opposed to 3 cents on the dollar with private insurance.) The grievously misnamed Affordable Care Act (I might start capitalizing that whole phrase: Grievously Misnamed Affordable Care Act) was supposed to help with that, too, but physician availability for Medicaid patients has budged only a very little bit in the right direction, with about one-third of Medicaid patients still unable to secure sought-after appointments.
As so often is the case, the most urgent problem is not the availability of resources to deploy but intractable bureaucratic dysfunction. I suspect that most Americans would be happy to support more spending on services for mothers in need — if we could be assured that $1 in spending would produce something closer to 94 cents in real benefits than to 11 cents in real benefits. Bureaucratic dysfunction imposes costs on taxpayers, but it imposes heavier costs on the people who are intended to be beneficiaries of the programs taxpayers fund. It is not only cranky libertarians who have come to the conclusion that the best way to help the poor and the needy is directly, without the involvement of the federal apparatus at all, at least to the extent that this can be avoided.
None of what’s needed to address these concerns requires getting into the abstraction of legal personhood. But irrespective of what the law says, if we start thinking of the unborn person as a person in the full and most meaningful sense — and we should do so — then this must change our attitude toward the unborn, toward pregnant women, toward new mothers, and toward mothers categorically. There remains much work to be done on the legal front when it comes to abortion, and much work to be done — on many fronts — when it comes to the interests of children. We have an unfortunate tendency to mire ourselves in sentimentality when it comes to children, but the facts of the case are not sentimental: Children are at the top of the list of those who cannot help themselves and who have the first and highest claim on our help and care. The most helpless children of all are those who have not yet been born and those who are newborns, and the best thing we can do to help these children is to help their mothers. Some of that help may take the form of federally administered entitlements and benefits, but much of it won’t.
And to the original point: Opening up the HOV lanes to pregnant women seems obvious enough. I like it on symbolic grounds even if the practical benefits are modest. It is time for a fresh attitude toward pregnancy and motherhood, which are blessings, not pathologies.
And Furthermore . . .
As mentioned, that Chron report is a mess. The author claims:
In Texas, all abortions are now illegal following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe and pending enactment of state trigger laws on the practice. Prior to the high court’s ruling, all abortions past six weeks of pregnancy had been outlawed by the Texas Heartbeat Act. This prior measure had been modeled closely after language crafted by Christian anti-abortion group Faith2Action Ministries, which has defined the presence of a fetal heartbeat as a marker of “an unborn human individual,” according to The Texas Tribune.
That just is not true. Texas law forbids most, but not all, abortions. As in most similar laws, the Texas statute includes a narrowly tailored exception in cases in which pregnancy threatens a mother’s life or would impose “serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function.”
And it is not only Christians who believe that what is in the womb is an “unborn human individual.” That isn’t even a matter of opinion — it is a plain physical fact.
One of the basic problems in U.S. journalism is that most people who get into journalism do not get into journalism because they care a great deal about journalism, meaning fact and context — they are moral crusaders, people who want to use journalism as a tool to shape public policy and public life. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that — National Review offers more than just the facts, ma’am — but when advocacy journalism or opinion journalism involves claims of fact, those facts need to be . . . facts. That they so often are not when it comes to the issues that are the most emotionally resonant for progressives — abortion, guns, the environment — has done more to undermine public confidence in journalism (including purportedly neutral straight-news newspaper journalism) than all of the conservative critiques of media bias put together ever have or ever will. Sustained over time, bad journalism can substantially deform our politics by deforming public opinion with fake “facts” — some Americans really do believe that Texas bans all abortions, that you can walk into a sporting-goods store and walk out with a machine gun, etc.
Bad journalism is bad news, indeed.
Words about Words
The word avocado kinda-sorta looks like it should be related to the Spanish word for lawyer, abogado, and it suggests the Latin advocatus and the Spanish advocado (past participle of advocar, a Latin American regionalism, the dictionary informs me), which are related in the usual fashion to the lawyerly English word advocate. There is, in fact, apparently a folk etymology holding that avocados are somehow someways related to lawyers, but, in fact, avocado is only a Spanish approximation of the Nahuatl word for the delicious berry. (Yes, it is a berry, technically.) It is generally assumed that the pronunciation and spelling were influenced by the word abogado, but that’s as far as it goes.
I do not speak Spanish — I’m sure someone will let me know if I have got it not quite right above.
Do you know who else didn’t speak Spanish? The Clash.
Joe Strummer (the guitar-centered stage name of John Graham Mellor) of the Clash loved the Spanish language and had the usual leftist’s romantic notions about the Spanish Civil War and various Latin American Marxist movements: The Clash called their opus magnus — a triple album — Sandinista! (Not ¡Sandinista!). And so the Clash wrote a fair bit of lyrics in Spanish — or something purporting to be Spanish. From the chorus of “Spanish Bombs”: “Yo t’quierro y finito, yo te querda, oh ma côrazon.” This is, I am informed, illiterate — not Jill-Biden-trying-to-pronounce-“bodegas”-level illiterate, but close.
From “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
This indecision’s bugging me Esta indecisión me molesta If you don’t want me, set me free Si no me quieres, líbrame Exactly whom I’m supposed to be Dime que tengo que ser Don’t know which clothes even fit me? ¿Sabes qué ropan me quedan? Come on and let me know Me lo tienes que decir Should I cool it or should I blow? ¿Me debo ir o quedarme? Yo me enfrío o lo sufro
Strummer called these lyrics “Clash Spanish,” put together with a Spanish–English dictionary and more enthusiasm than grammar. The legendary singer and songwriter Joe Ely (currently eleven places ahead of me on the list of people you should know from Lubbock, Texas) sang backup on “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and explained:
“I’m singing all the Spanish verses on that, and I even helped translate them. I translated them into Tex-Mex and Strummer kind of knew Castilian Spanish, because he grew up in Spain in his early life. And a Puerto Rican engineer (Eddie Garcia) kind of added a little flavor to it. So it’s taking the verse and then repeating it in Spanish.
I came in to the studio while they were working out the parts. They’d been working on the song for a few hours already, they had it sketched out pretty good. But I think it was Strummer’s idea, because he just immediately, when it came to that part, he immediately went, ‘You know Spanish, help me translate these things.’ My Spanish was pretty much Tex-Mex, so it was not an accurate translation. But I guess it was meant to be sort of whimsical, because we didn’t really translate verbatim.”
I’m sure that the Clash would be canceled for that now — for something between cultural appropriation and cultural insensitivity. That’s a shame — “Spanish Bombs” is a genuinely great song.
The Latin equivalent of that busted-up kind of Spanish is called “dog Latin,” a phrase at least as ancient as Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence. There is such a thing as “Spanglish,” but that isn’t quite it.
So, “Clash Spanish” it must be.
The above invites a repetition: The word advocate does not require any help from for; the for is built in: that’s the ad– part of the word — ad-vocate, to speak to or speak for or speak on behalf of. Grover Norquist advocates tax cuts — he does not advocate for tax cuts.
Also, per a reader correcting my slovenly usage a few weeks ago: different from, not different than.
Today is the Feast Day of Macrina the Younger, a saint, a consecrated virgin, and big sister (with all that entails, I hope) to both Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. Consecrated virgins are still a thing — a very interesting thing at that.
(Unconsecrated virgins carry around copies of Atlas Shrugged.)
Pancake Is Living Her Best Life
Can’t say as much for my raggedy mums, which are having a hard time coping with an unusually hot July in Texas.
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Boris Johnson’s Bad Example
U.S. presidents get to do one big thing — if they’re lucky.
Some of those one big things are bigger than others: Barack Obama signed a health-insurance bill, but Abraham Lincoln saved the Union. Richard Nixon ended the American involvement in Vietnam. A few really extraordinary presidents get to do two big things: Franklin Roosevelt did the New Deal and rallied the whole of American power to save — the world, really. (So, a mixed record.) Ronald Reagan, in a similar way, got one big win at home by overseeing a major reform of economic policy and one big win abroad by setting up the kill shot on the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, though the hammer-and-sickle flag didn’t come down at the Kremlin until Christmas of 1991, when Reagan was enjoying his retirement in Bel-Air. Some presidents make a great noise but don’t actually get much done: Bill Clinton had the great good fortune to be president when the first big technology boom was reaching its height but long before #MeToo. Clinton did not shape events but was carried forward by them: the post–Cold War restructuring of the global economic and diplomatic environment, the Internet, the Bosnian War, the ascendance of a new kind of Republican power in 1994. Clinton was a slacker, but some eminently capable and experienced men end up accomplishing relatively little as president: Ulysses Grant was one such, and George H. W. Bush another. James Garfield, who died from an assassin’s wounds six months into his administration, had too little time in the office to achieve anything, while Andrew Jackson had two full terms to prove that he never should have been elected to the office in the first place.
Prime ministers of the United Kingdom are different from American presidents in that they occupy a relatively large office — wielding both executive and legislative power — in a much-less-consequential country. And so Boris Johnson’s one big thing at home was Brexit, an issue that aside from being an inspiration to right-wing populist movements around the world was of little importance outside of the European Union and the United Kingdom, while his blue-ribbon foreign-policy achievement — getting the Russian war on Ukraine just right — was of limited practical value. Big fish, small pond.
The differences are significant, but the performance of the eccentric gentleman representing Uxbridge and South Ruislip (born on the Upper East Side of Manhattan) as prime minister of the United Kingdom does shed some light on a subject of urgent and immediate importance to the very different office of the U.S. presidency: the role of character.
I can hear you rolling your eyes. It’s a kind of squeaky sound.
Conservatives are a little bit embarrassed by the word character just now, for obvious reasons. But the character of both private and public figures, and especially the character of the president, used to be a very big deal to conservatives. There were some good books about the character of presidents (Peggy Noonan wrote one) and whole sprawling business empires built on virtue. In retrospect, it is clear that at least some of us were not all that serious about that.
But the issue of character is worth thinking about — not as an abstract philosophical and ethical concern (though such inquiries are of interest, too) but as a practical issue. As I have been arguing for some years now, character and all those virtues we used to talk about are not mere accoutrements to a political career — nice if you can get them, but not necessary — or issues of concern only to history and the afterlife. Forget, for our purposes here, the confessional: The character of elected leaders has immediate practical importance — which begins with their importance for the workaday concerns of the careers of those leaders.
Boris Johnson was not undone by bad ideas or bad policy, though he had some bad ideas and bad policies. Neither was he undone by some unforeseeable shift in public opinion, nor by factional plotting within the Conservative Party, though that party is famously a nest of vipers. Boris Johnson was undone mainly by the fact that he is a habitual liar, and to a lesser degree by the fact that he is lazy and does not seem to actually believe in much of anything. There is much to like and to admire about Johnson, and it is not difficult to understand why those who supported him did so with enthusiasm right up until the moment they stopped. But admirable men have their defects and deficiencies, too, and sometimes these are more than they can overcome, as in the case of Johnson.
There is a legend about Boris Johnson (generally treated as fact) that as the United Kingdom headed for a referendum on leaving the European Union, he prepared two speeches — one in favor of Brexit and one in favor of remaining — and waited to see which direction the political winds would blow, hoping to use the issue to unseat and replace the sitting prime minister, David Cameron. He managed to get Cameron thrown out but had to sit through Theresa May’s time as PM before finally getting into the office himself.
Once he got there, he did his one big thing — taking Brexit from referendum to reality. And then he didn’t quite know what to do with himself. He had no interest in fiscal discipline or long-term economic thinking, which is not entirely out of character for a national leader who — this is probably the most droll modern English political scandal — skipped out on important Covid-19 planning meetings because he was in a rush to finish writing a biography of William Shakespeare in order to raise money to pay for a divorce then in progress, and who got in trouble for spending £240,000 to renovate his residence (with 32 meters of silk curtains and a £3,675 bar cart) with no authorization and no means to pay for it, handing the bill, illegally, to a sympathetic party donor.
(The Shakespeare biography remains unfinished.)
Johnson’s leadership and his government were disorganized, chaotic, mercurial, and — in all but that one big thing — generally ineffective.
As Guardian columnist Martin Kettle puts it, “Johnson’s Conservatism is highly unusual, a rag-bag of high spending, government intervention and English nationalism. It has little connection with the low-tax, small-state, globally liberal Toryism that preceded it and which the party cast aside when it rushed to embrace Johnson as the answer to its problems.” Republican heads in the United States should be nodding along with that.
But it was, finally, the lies that undid Johnson. He lied about big things and about little things, and he even lied about things that he didn’t need to lie about, as though he were only keeping in practice, Clinton-style. The U.K. parliament is unlike our Congress in that it actually makes some effort to participate in the governance of the country, and, for that reason, it continues to have a few shreds of institutional self-respect, which Congress happily gave up long ago. Johnson got away with lying to his constituents from time to time, just as he had once got away with periodically lying to his readers in the Telegraph, but Parliament took being lied to seriously. Johnson was subjected to a humiliating no-confidence vote that left him wounded and weak enough to be knocked off by the exposure of yet another lie, in this case about his appointing a political ally accused of sexual misconduct, Chris Pincher, to a party leadership position with foreknowledge of the allegations. Johnson probably didn’t really need to lie about that affair: Pincher already had resigned from Johnson’s government, and Johnson might as easily have told the truth — that he knew about Pincher’s behavior, was confident that he would not do it again, and wanted to give him a second chance. (Assuming that is more or less the truth.) But instead of sharing a little in the pain and taking responsibility for his own decision, he tried to insulate himself entirely from the situation.
That was dishonesty, true, but it was also cowardice.
The practical problem with habitual liars such as Boris Johnson is not that we are offended by their dishonesty (although we should be) but that they end up being impossible to work with. There aren’t a lot of contracts and ironclad deals in real-life politics, which is a game of negotiation and understanding that ultimately is based on trust. That is true for relations between rival politicians and rival parties, but it also is true for people who are on the same side and trying to cooperate.
The institutions of the free world run on trust, and Boris Johnson, in spite of his many excellent qualities, is a man not to be trusted.
That is a lesson that we Americans would benefit from learning.
And Furthermore . . .
I do not agree with the maxim attributed to Heraclitus — often quoted by John McCain — that “character is destiny.” People do not often change, but they can change, and they sometimes change for the better. But, even so, it is impossible to miss the ways in which aspects of character — both virtues and vices — shape and limit the careers of men in high office, especially presidents. Bill Clinton’s presidency was undone by his infidelity and his cowardly refusal to take responsibility for his actions; Barack Obama’s great flaws were shallowness and self-centeredness, which left his hallmark health-insurance program half-made and his party more than decimated at the state and local level after his time in office; George W. Bush was an occasional sentimentalist who sometimes made a vice out of the virtue of loyalty, sticking by advisers and executives from whom he should have liberated his administration; Richard Nixon’s political story was one of personal greatness poisoned by insecurity and resentment; Ronald Reagan was a man almost without friends, whose aloofness (and its flipside: his uxoriousness) sometimes deprived him of the best counsel; Jimmy Carter tried to govern the country with sanctimony and failed; Donald Trump’s vanity made him vulnerable to self-interested flatterers and sycophants who brought out the worst in a man who was wildly ill suited to the job to begin with.
Character is not destiny — but it is almost that.
Words about Words
Michael la Corte writes about cooking for Salon, but he has found something fun in the lexical cupboard: “What the heck,” he asks, “is a ‘napron’?”
As la Corte relays, the modern English word apron is the result of a “false separation,” hearing a break in a word or words in the wrong place. This has happened occasionally in English with the indefinite article “a” and nouns beginning with n — people hear “a napron” as “an apron,” and, over time, napron becomes apron. That is how anarenge got on the path to becoming an orange, and it is how the adder, formerly the nadder, lost his n, and how the nauger suffered the same amputation, becoming anauger.
The phenomenon also is known as rebracketing.
Sometimes rebracketing leads to misspellings, and sometimes it leads to funny understandings of words. Another is an other, but we sometimes hear a nother, leading to expressions such as “a whole nother issue.” The Middle English mine uncle produces the colloquial nuncle. In Middle English, they had a noumpere, but we have an umpire.
A famous example of the false break, also mentioned by la Corte, is the career of the word hamburger. The meaningful break in hamburger is between hamburg and er, Hamburger meaning someone or something from Hamburg. But we have the word ham in English, and so we hear ham-burger. There is no ham in a hamburger, but that’s how we hear the word, which led us to cheeseburger, veggie burger, burger joint, etc.
I do hope that somewhere near the northernmost tip of France is a restaurant called Burgers of Calais.
The Guardian column referenced above was written by Martin Kettle, whose name is so ridiculously English that it might as well come from Charles Dickens. In fact, the recent news out of the United Kingdom has been full of wonderfully evocative names: Mr. Pincher (“by name and by nature,” as Boris Johnson reportedly described him), MP Penny Mordaunt, Tom Tugendhat. Ridiculous, all of them. Only the unassimilated Boris stands out. (His ancestry is, as you might expect, colorful — his great-grandfather was the Turkish journalist-politician Ali Kemal.) But the United Kingdom is a different kind of country than it once was, and the plausible candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party include Nadhim Zahawi, Sajid Javid, former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak, and possibly Priti Patel.
What I liked best about Mr. Kettle’s column was the correction at the end of it: “This article was amended on 7 July 2022 because an earlier version described Sajid Javid’s resignation speech as coruscating, when it meant excoriating.” Perhaps someone was reaching for the thesaurus for a gold-plated adjective and landed on the wrong page.
To coruscate is to sparkle. As Merriam-Webster puts it, it is “to be brilliant or showy in technique or style,” a sense derived from its literal meaning, “to give off or reflect light in bright beams or flashes.” The guitar playing of Steve Vai is coruscating, as is the prose of Tom Wolfe and the gymnastics of Simone Biles. Paganini is coruscating.
But the word sounds like it should have something to do with blistering criticism, perhaps because of the aural harmony of coruscate and excoriate. In fact, it is one of those words that have been used the wrong way for so long that some dictionaries list that sense.
Different words for different things — it is what makes vocabularies work.
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The above is part of an exchange about my friend and former National Review colleague David French. David really brings it out in people, for whatever reason. It is a cliché to assert that critics of a man are simply envious of him, but I think that’s approximately it in his case: He makes a certain kind of man feel small — father of natural and adopted children, Ivy League pedigree, Bronze Star, a leader in his community, considerable professional accomplishments, etc. I should write something long about him one of these days. In the meantime, I am very entertained by the notion that David French, a cum laude graduate of Harvard Law, writes critical columns about Evangelical Christians and political conservatives because he thinks that’s the best way for him to make money. I don’t agree with everything David writes or thinks, but the man deserves better critics. The ones he has are too dumb and too rage-besotted even to hate him adequately.
Every time I write about that C.E./B.C.E. silliness (those being secularized substitutes for B.C. and A.D.), I get a lot of hurt feedback. Yes, I know that there are lots of people in the world who are not Christians, and who do not believe that there was anything special about that Jesus guy, if he even existed. Mahatma is a word with Hindu religious connotations, but we don’t feel self-conscious talking about Gandhi, and we all know who the Prophet Mohammed is, even if we do not think he was really a prophet. Walter Annenberg’s background was Jewish, but he was happy to be the ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, irrespective of whether he had any thoughts about the holiness of James. (Court of St. James’s, not Court of St. James or Court of St. James’.) Grow up. There are lots and lots of calendars in the world, and you can use any one you please. You could start your own calendar and number the years from the birth of Charles Darwin or Elvis Presley or the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But you don’t get to steal the Christian calendar and make it into something it isn’t. It’s not yours to do with as you please. You live where you live, and the history of this civilization is what it is. Trying to secularize the calendar isn’t doing a courtesy to non-Christians — it is an act of vandalism to the culture we all share, irrespective of our own particular religious belief. Knock it off, you ridiculous little Jacobins.
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Joe Biden Couldn’t Run a 7-Eleven
Some of you may be familiar with the myth of George H. W. Bush and the supermarket scanner — and, since you are National Review readers, you probably know that it is a myth. But allow me to revisit the story.
In February 1992, the New York Times published a dishonest story headlined “Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed,” in which the president was purportedly awed by a supermarket checkout scanner. The obvious intention was to paint the president as coddled and out-of-touch — “ducal” is one adjective I remember being applied to him — and it worked: Newspapers and television news shows around the country ran with the story. In reality, Bush hadn’t “encountered” a supermarket at all — he was visiting a business convention for grocers, and listened politely (which he did a lot of, having been raised well) as the makers of the scanner showed off their new technology, which really was advanced at the time: You young’n’s might not believe it, but there was a time when those built-in electronic scales on supermarket scanners were a new thing, and that time was 1992. “Amazing,” Bush said. That was pretty much it.
There was a lot of that sort of thing in the George H. W. Bush administration. The media decided that the vice president, former U.S. senator Dan Quayle of Indiana, was a moron, mostly because he had gone to night school to get his law degree instead of Yale. The dishonesty in covering Quayle was remarkable: The vice president once joked that he was looking forward to a trip to Latin America so that he could finally make good use of his high-school Latin, and the newspapers reported the joke as though it were a genuine blunder. That sort of thing. Quayle wasn’t the world’s most gifted politician, it is true, but he was (and, as far as I know, still is) a capable and decent man of the sort we could use more of in government.
(Dan and Marilyn Quayle will celebrate their 50th anniversary in November, and I increasingly take such personal milestones as important indicators.)
George H. W. Bush was good at a lot of things: He flew bombers over the Pacific in World War II, ran the CIA, served as our chief diplomat in China, etc. I am confident that he would have made a successful groceryman, if that had been his calling.
I don’t think Joe Biden could run a 7-Eleven — and not because he has the wrong accent. I worked the 11 p.m.–7 a.m. shift at 7-Eleven for a while, and my accent worked just fine. (The things you see working at a convenience store in those hours!) But you do have to keep an eye on the gasoline pumps.
President Biden has been dunning U.S. gas stations to lower their prices in order to help him solve his main immediate political problem. His misunderstanding of how the gasoline business works is something like a nonfiction version of the New York Times’ account of Bush and the checkout scanner: It paints a portrait of a man out of touch.
“My message to the companies running gas stations and setting prices at the pump is simple: this is a time of war and global peril. Bring down the price you are charging at the pump to reflect the cost you’re paying for the product. And do it now.” Biden’s dopey and feckless press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, complained that while oil prices have declined some in the past few weeks, “prices at the pump have barely come down.”
Allow me to solve that mystery: Gas stations don’t sell crude oil — they sell gasoline.
And, contrary to what the Biden brain trust seems to think, wholesale gasoline prices do not move in lockstep with crude oil prices. And retail gasoline prices do not move in lockstep with wholesale gasoline prices. I don’t get the feeling that President Biden is up to the second on RBOB spot prices. (That’s “Reformulated Blendstock for Oxygenate Blending,” the main ingredient in commercial gasoline.) There’s a whole complex market out there, and the guys who have a “slight Indian accent” are minor players in it.
As anybody who has ever sold anything for a living can tell you, you don’t get to set your own margin. The market does that for you. Politicians talk as if — and, in many cases, honestly believe — the way a business works is that a retailer picks some numbers out of the air — 7.5 percent or 10 percent or 22 percent — and simply marks up whatever he pays for his product wholesale by that amount, and that this is how retail prices are set. That is what academic economists call absolutehorsepucky.
(Try selling newspaper subscriptions in a city in which a quarter — or maybe half — the population can’t really read. It isn’t exactly a name-your-own-price proposition.)
The retail gasoline market is one of the most brutally competitive markets in the American retail environment — which is why the businesses that sell consumers gasoline typically do not make very much money from gasoline sales: We call them “gas stations,” but they are really soda, tobacco, and lottery-ticket shops. The sign out front may say “Exxon” or “Texaco,” but the major oil companies generally don’t own the gas stations on which their names appear — this is just a branding thing. There are several big national chains, but the majority of gas stations in the United States are owned and operated by small-time entrepreneurs with only one location — there are some 64,000 such outlets across our fruited plains, and more than 116,000 gasoline retailers in total. That’s one of the signs of a good, competitive market: lots of buyers and lots of sellers.
In recent months, the gross margin on gasoline — the spread between wholesale and retail prices — has averaged around 27 cents per gallon. That doesn’t mean that the store owner actually pockets 27 cents every time somebody buys a gallon of gas, because there are clerks to be paid, lights to be kept on, taxes, insurance, etc. — all the ordinary costs of being in business, along with some costs that are particular to the gas-station business. (In Texas, for example, gas-station operators have to pay out-of-pocket for the required state inspections.) Because the wholesale gasoline market is very volatile and because the retail gasoline market is very competitive, the retail margin can fluctuate wildly, and it has recently: We’ve seen a few weeks this summer in which the gross margin has been around 60 cents per gallon — higher than average, but about where they were in the spring of 2020, according to the Lundberg Survey, which characterizes recent margins as “unimpressive.” Lundberg forecasts that retail gasoline prices may drop by ten cents or so in the near future, but probably will not go much lower because of “upstream constraints.” Those constraints include OPEC’s inability to substantially increase output and the hesitation of U.S. drillers to invest in new production while there is a Democratic president and Democratic Congress promising to do their best to put the oil-and-gas business out of business.
In fact, gas-station owners are not always particularly happy to see high gasoline prices. As the Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing puts it, “The pattern of retail profitability is the opposite of what most consumers think. Due to the volatility in the wholesale price of gasoline and the competitive structure of the market, fuels retailers typically see profitability decrease as prices rise, and increase when prices fall.” That is at times also true, though less dramatically so, for the upstream business: Producers and refiners worry about “demand backlash,” which is what happens when prices get high enough and stay high enough to actually change consumer behavior, with expensive fuel suddenly making it look more attractive to shell out for a Tesla, to use mass transit, or to spend summer vacations at home rather than driving or flying to some distant destination.
The urge to blame retailers for the results of inflationary fiscal policies — and destructive energy policies — in Washington is ugly, demagogic, and, given Biden’s creepy history, maybe even a little bit racist. It is also more than a little bit galling to hear people filling up their Escalades bitching about the supposed greed of a guy who traveled 8,000 miles to work 90 hours a week in a thankless, often unpleasant job for which he is likely to earn a hell of a lot less money than a high-school vice principal in a country full of comfortable people where apparently no native has the grit or the energy to operate a Kwik-E-Mart franchise.
Coffee at Starbucks is about $64 a gallon, and I don’t hear anybody bellyaching about that.
We have beaucoup oil and gas here in the United States. We need refineries set up to change that petroleum into useful fuels and more pipelines to get that fuel from where the refineries are to where the people are. This can be done in an economically and environmentally responsible way. Getting it done will not be fast or easy, but what needs to be done isn’t exactly mysterious.
Democrats want to put the oil-and-gas industry out of business and have said so, and the industry believes them. I know — I talk to these guys, and they don’t know if they are going to have businesses a few years down the road. They remind me of farmers who advise their own children not to go into the family business. They are hesitant to invest and to make long-term plans.
And these are the results you get.
On a Related Note . . .
I am not exactly a full-fledged climate cultist and hope never to be one, but I am more open to more assertive climate policy than many of my fellow conservatives are. The main political problem with climate reform isn’t right-wing obstruction of intelligent climate policy but climate-cultist obstruction of intelligent climate policy. Replacing the world’s coal-fired electricity generation with gas-powered generation would constitute a large and meaningful improvement, while implementing nuclear power on a large scale would constitute a radical improvement — it would as a practical matter solve the climate issue as far as electricity is concerned, and electricity touches everything from the emissions footprint of operating buildings to the electrified part of the transportation sector. The case against nuclear power is not environmental or economic but aesthetic, tribal, and superstitious.
Those are the first steps that should be taken. If instead you want the first steps to be maximally symbolic, maximally painful, and minimally effective, then you’d start by squeezing the petroleum fuel supply for ordinary consumers in the affluent world — which is what many of the so-called Green New Dealers propose to do. A relatively modest but nonetheless painful spike in gasoline prices has made the filling station the center of American political life for the moment, and it is the No. 1 issue in many communities. Politicians running for offices that have little or nothing to do with fuel prices or energy policies report that they are asked about gasoline prices more than they are about the issues relevant to the positions they seek. If you look at where we are now — at the sense of crisis that today attends gasoline prices — then you can get a pretty good idea of what the politics of the Green New Deal are going to look like in practice. Gasoline at $30 a gallon will help countries hit their emissions targets — if those governments survive long enough to see their policies come to full fruition, which they probably won’t.
The United States has a lot of petroleum. We also have the world’s best engineers and nuclear scientists, the world’s best environmental scientists, and the world’s best electric-car company. If we can’t make this work, it’s not for lack of resources.
Words about Words
As I mentioned last week, I’ve been reading Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, which are very enjoyable. Fleming is a kind of English Mickey Spillane. Some of Fleming’s usages jumped out at me as either very British or anachronistic or both, including his use of the word directly where a modern American English writer would use “directly after” or “directly following” or something like that. E.g.: “Directly he had taken delivery of the case, Bond had washed this pill down the lavatory,” and, “The engine had kicked directly he pressed the self-starter.”
Weird and jarring, no? But pretty common among Andrew Stuttaford and Charlie Cooke’s old neighbors.
I wouldn’t use it (Muppet News Alert: We Have Discovered Something Too Irritatingly Pretentious for Kevin Williamson!) but I do like that directly, and I especially like it for Bond, because it is brusque and, I suppose there’s no better way to put it, direct.
Question for you Englishmen and Anglophiles: Does that sound familiar? Have you encountered it anywhere outside of a James Bond novel?
Yes, yes, yesterday was the Fourth of July, 4 July 2022, however you want to write the date — the holiday is Independence Day. It is independence that we celebrate, so let’s say so.
Speaking of, July 1 was Dominion Day, or Canada Day, marking Canada’s becoming a sort-of independent bunch of subjects of Her Majesty.
(I have mixed feelings about monarchy — it is a dopey idea, but I like traditions. I don’t have mixed feelings about monarchists, who are ridiculous. I mean here the monarchists in countries that are not monarchies, monarchists in places such as the United States and France and other republics, where monarchists really ought to know better than to indulge in that kind of rank and reactionary sentimentality. I don’t believe I have ever met a monarch (maybe a would-be maharaja in denial about the 26th Amendment) but I suspect that meeting one would fortify my skepticism about monarchy.)
Canada is a good neighbor to have, and, with all due respect to Mexico, the United States would be a hell of a lot better off with a second Canada on its southern border. Rich, polite neighbors are good to have, and though they were on the wrong side in our dispute with King George all those years ago, the Canadians have fought like lions beside Americans every time it really mattered. There is an RCAF flag that flies outside my house (it’s a family thing) and I was especially happy to have it there on Dominion Day.
But I’m going off track here: Independence Day. That’s what we should call it.
Also . . .
Why “young’n’s, above, and not “young’uns” or something like that? Because when we run words together and create contractions, apostrophes represent letters omitted, and there is no “u” in “young ones.” Similarly: “Y’all,” not “ya’ll.” (“All y’all” is a subject for another time.) If everybody follows the rules, everybody can be understood without unnecessary ambiguity.
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Home and Away
You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here.
I’m writing this on Independence Day, and one of the things I’ll never get used to — and will never have to — is having holidays off from work. I was a newspaper editor from my teens through my 30s, and if you are a newspaper editor, you work holidays — you might get off the day before Christmas or the day after, but you work on Christmas, because there’s a day after Christmas (the Feast of Stephen, which you might know from the carol), and, back when “the press” was based on presses, somebody had to be there to produce the newspaper for the day after the holiday. A reporter might get the holiday off (unless there’s something breaking, reporters tend to file holiday copy in advance, because nothing much is happening on Christmas or Thanksgiving except weather and car crashes), and a columnist — eh, what a columnist does barely even counts as work, and who cares when he does it? But editors work on holidays. I’m thinking about that because somebody has to edit this — I’m a pretty careful writer, but I need an editor like anybody else. I’m not sure who will be on duty, but — thanks!
I have been reading Georges Declercq’s fascinating Anno Domini: The Origins of the Christian Era. How did we come to number our years from the (notional) year of the birth of Jesus? If you know the name Dionysius Exiguus, you know where the story starts, but the rest of the tale is pretty interesting, and worth knowing.
On the subject of anno Domini, I always snicker a little bit at the childish habit of writing “BCE” and “CE” instead of B.C. and A.D. You can write “CE” all you like, we mark the “Common Era” from the birth of Jesus, and there’s no getting around the fact. But people have funny attitudes about religion. The other day I met a man with a little baby who had the name of a famous figure from Scripture, and when I mentioned that I liked the Old Testament name, the fellow bristled, and pointed out that the baby’s middle name came from The Hobbit. I thought to myself: “Way to tamp down that icky Christian association, choosing a name from the most famous and beloved Christian fiction writer . . . I don’t know — ever?” But I didn’t say it, of course. The guy seemed nice enough, and the baby was very cute.
But I’ll bet dad writes “CE” and “BCE.”
I don’t speak for Christians (goodness, no!) but what would I say about Christian civilization?
“You’re welcome,” I guess.
Some people just get really funny about that sort of thing. Touchy. Defensive. I hope they don’t spend too much time in Sacramento, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, St. Paul, St. Petersburg, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Santa Fe, Zion National Park. . .
A final Independence Day thought: Margaret Thatcher famously said, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” I think the same holds true of many things: I’m skeptical of people who habitually describe themselves as “intellectuals,” and people with bumper-stickers or social-media profiles advertising their kindness and compassion are almost without exception the most vicious, petty, and cruel people you will ever meet. (Imagine a Birkenstock sandal stamping on a human face — forever.) There are among us a great many people who have the word “patriot” on their business cards and their Facebook profiles, and they want to sell you things — sometimes products bearing the “Patriot” label. If you have to tell people what a great patriot you are eleven times a day, then maybe — just maybe, hear me out! — maybe you’re just another guy selling cell-phone service plans. Nothing wrong with being a salesman — some of my best friends and all that — but maybe leave Patrick Henry out of it.
Correction: RBOB is “Reformulated Blendstock,” of course, and not “Reformulated Feedstock,” as I originally wrote.
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Democrats against Democracy
Thanks to five decades’ worth of work by legal reformers and pro-life activists, the Supreme Court has taken the purportedly radical step of deciding that, henceforth, abortion laws will be made by lawmakers in their legislatures, rather than by judges in their chambers. That return to democracy has, of course, been lamented as announcing a “crisis of our democracy” as well as heralding our “declining democracy,” according to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That assault on democracy — a very, very weird “assault on democracy” that consists of asking the people to vote on a contested political issue through their elected representatives — makes of these United States a “cautionary tale,” according to the “analysts” over at the Washington Post, the sometimes daft pages of which offer a helpful reminder that the first word in analyst is anal.
What does it actually mean, this “democracy” of which we perpetually speak?
For progressives, “democracy” is a very plastic word that means, “what we call it when we get what we want.” Examples: The Supreme Court overrules state abortion laws on an obviously pretextual and obviously specious constitutional claim and overrules the democratic outcome in favor of the private judgment of a half-dozen unaccountable law professors? That’s democracy! At least according to Democrats. But when the Supreme Court later corrects itself and returns the question to the democratic institutions — to the people and their state legislatures? That, in case you hadn’t noticed, is the end of democracy as we know it. What about using employment as an instrument of social coercion to silence people with unpopular political opinions? Workplace democracy, of course. What if a business owner decides that he doesn’t want to perform some service that is at odds with his views? The end of democracy, my God! If a Republican insists a presidential election was stolen and that the president is illegitimate, that is an obvious assault on democracy, and probably treason. If Democrats insists a presidential election was stolen and the president is illegitimate? That’s democracy in action, and dissent is the highest form of patriotism.
Funny thing, this “democracy.” Funny and kind of stupid.
Democracy, meaning “rule by the people,” is a word that entered English in the late 16th century to describe a contrast with the other main forms of government in the Western world, monarchy and aristocracy. Monarchy and aristocracy, along with the example of the republics of Renaissance Italy and that of the Roman dictatorship, were very much on the minds of the American founders. Democracy did not have an especially inspiring track record at the time of our nation’s Founding, and the word democracy had not taken on its current moral hue. Democracy was a low thing, in their judgment, a near cousin to anarchy.
The most democratic forms of government in Western political history had been (in theory) democracies pure and simple, in which all political power was (in theory) held by the people themselves, who met in assemblies that were open to all citizens and voted on the great questions of the day. Hence, democracy has at times been construed to mean “majority rule.” Even though these democracies were hemmed in in various ways (for example, by religious tradition) that kind of democracy was unstable, often just a short step away from the Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes, and it often was indistinguishable from its cousins, ochlocracy (“mob rule”) and demagoguery (the exploitation of democratic passions by power-seekers). The Founders did not think much of democracy thus understood, and you can read quite pointed rejection of “democracy” in the works of John Adams, among many others. The word kept its ugly and anarchic connotations for years, such that when Abraham Lincoln wrote contemptuously of the “corrupt Democracy,” everybody knew what he meant — he meant the traitors and the slavers in the political party that still had and has the effrontery to call itself “Democratic.”
You won’t find any mention of democracy in the Declaration of Independence. The closest you will find to that is many complaints about the English king’s abuse of the law and the legislatures. The indictment of King George included:
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
This was not a democratic indictment, but rather one oriented more specifically toward liberty and the rule of law.
Those colonial legislatures were not exactly democratically elected, either — beyond the exclusion of women, African Americans, and the unpropertied, the idea was that such assemblies would be chosen from among the leading men by the leading men. The U.S. Senate, whose members were appointed by the various state legislatures rather than popularly elected, was once meant to be roughly the same thing. Adams sought a “balanced” government, meaning one that incorporated the best aspects of monarchy in the presidency, the best aspects of aristocracy in the Senate and other undemocratic institutions, and the best aspects of democracy in the House of Representatives. Democracy, in that respect, is merely useful, not a moral necessity in its own right. I believe that is still the right way to think about it.
When it is working well, our political order is indeed “balanced,” though not in exactly the way Adams preferred. Democracy is one constituent, one ingredient in the recipe. The other big one is liberalism, the idea that the rights and liberties of the people should be the central concern of government. The American Revolution was to a large degree a liberal revolution, one oriented toward reclaiming and fortifying what the Founding Fathers understood to be their rights as Englishmen — and, while it leads to some semantic confusion, American conservatism is fundamentally liberal: What American conservatives seek to conserve is a political and social order founded in Anglo-Protestant liberalism. This imagines a social order in which the private sphere accounts for the most important parts of life — piety, family, community, economy — and the public sector, particularly the national government, exists mainly to protect the liberty and the property of the people.
This is in contradistinction to the paternalistic model of government, which is still very much with us among the authoritarians and which demands that the state be a father and a teacher, a moral tutor and a moral disciplinarian, rather than a disinterested enforcer of laws and contracts. Democracy often acts as a sort of camouflage for paternalistic government, investing some political figure (in our case, almost invariably the president) with quasi-mystical powers as the personification of “We the People.” Strongman democracy is in practice very much like ordinary monarchy or dictatorship, and the strongman usually outlasts the democracy. It is democracy without liberalism.
Liberalism opposes and limits democracy in certain important ways: For example, the Bill of Rights and other provisions of the Constitution put some important considerations, such as freedom of speech and the right to keep and bear arms, beyond the reach of ordinary politics. Neither Congress nor the president can take away your constitutional rights, which, in the original understanding of the American order, are not granted by the Constitution by only formally recognized therein — being granted by God, which is why those rights cannot be legitimately trampled by any government, no matter how popular or democratic — Americans are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
We sometimes call the usual Western mode of government liberal democracy, but the mix of liberalism and democracy is a contested matter. Libertarian theorists such as F. A. Hayek argued that the only real case for democracy is prudential, that a liberal (meaning libertarian) dictatorship would be entirely preferable to an illiberal democracy, and that we rely on democratic institutions only because there are not a lot of liberal dictators to be found. (Hayek’s inclination toward liberal dictatorship led him into occasional error, such as his excessive enthusiasm for the dictator Augusto Pinochet, who enacted some very liberal, positively Hayekian economic policies. Margaret Thatcher once felt compelled to write Hayek a letter warning him against being seduced by Pinochet and his methods.) In our time, there is a pronounced tendency toward illiberal or anti-liberal democracy, not only among such exotic paternalistic specimens as Viktor Orbán but here in the United States, too. The Trumpist element is an example of that, as is the circle of crackpot Catholic fantasists typified by Sohrab Ahmari and others of that ilk. To get some idea of the flavor of that, consider that Ahmari, who purports to be some kind of Christian conservative, despises the Federalist Society, the constitutionalist organization most directly responsible for the successful legal campaign against Roe, as — and here I will quote Ahmari directly — the “jackals of Mammon,” because the Federalist Society works toward a legal framework for economic liberty as well as an authentically constitutional approach to abortion.
I myself do not believe the ladies and gentlemen of the Federalist Society to be the jackals of Mammon. (I do not think that Ahmari really believes that either: Whether he is in his secular-Muslim phase or his atheist-neocon phase or his ultramontane Catholic phase, his true religion is and always has been notoriety.) It is true that liberal regimes sometimes by their liberalism enable vice. It is also true that illiberal regimes sometimes by their illiberalism enable vice, as every third goat in Wardak knows. The problem is the vice, not the liberty. But, then, my interest is in building up institutions, not in burning them down — unfashionable, I know.
What Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the cretins running around in “handmaid” costumes have in common with Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, the deranged January 6 cretins and the imbecilic American Greatness cretins who want you to believe that the January 6 riot was an “inside job” staged by the FBI and anti-Trump Republicans is that for all their talk about democracy — or elections, or the Constitution, or patriotism, or social justice, or whatever — their only real politics is the politics of the bawling baby: “Baby want!” For the partisans of Roe v. Wade, “democracy” means that they get what they demand — which is taking democracy out of the picture altogether when it comes to abortion law. But the abortion fanatics are not alone in this.
The Dobbs decision is, in a sense, a return to democracy — the very contentious issue of abortion will be debated as an issue in democratic elections and sorted out through democratic votes by democratically elected representatives in democratic legislatures. But it is in a more important and more profound sense a victory for the rule of law and for liberty — the Roe regime was not, and never could have been, legitimate, representing as it did the usurpation of legislative power by judges who have no entitlement to wield it. Overturning the laws of the states on specious grounds is every bit as much an assault on our liberal-democratic constitutional order as overturning the results of a presidential election on specious grounds would have been. The American people — not as individuals but as a people — have consented to live under our own particular Constitution, which actually says what it actually says, and we have not consented to live under a government of polite progressive opinion as communicated through the law schools and the legal profession. Legitimacy begins with consent.
In that sense, there was much more at stake in Dobbs than abortion, as prime and bloody an issue as that is.
Words About Words
In the Declaration of Independence, our modern English word harass is spelled harrass. We have settled on how to spell it, but there remains some debate about how to pronounce it.
For all of my life, I had never heard any pronunciation other than ha-RASS and ha-RASS-ment. But during the Anita Hill controversy — and let me just go on record here and repeat that I don’t believe a word of her claims against Clarence Thomas, any more than I believe the fantastical horsepucky that was put forward to try to torpedo Brett Kavanaugh — a different pronunciation briefly came into favor, and the word was pronounced as though it were Harris, like the tweed or the current vice president, and harris-ment to rhyme with embarrassment. My theory is that in the sexual context of the 1990s, the common pronouncement of harass sounded too much like “her ass” to the television people.
There isn’t any reason to take embarrassment as the template for harassment. Embarrass comes to us from the Italian imbarrere, “to bar.” The original sense of embarrass is “to block” or “to impede, to hinder,” and, thence by analogy, “to make someone feel hindered or awkward.” To harass someone, on the other hand, is to sic the dogs on them. In older Germanic usages, hare was the ejaculation used to order a dog to attack, like our modern sic. That word gave rise to harer (“to set a dog on”) and then harasser in French.
Sic the dog command is not sic the Latin adverb — it is a mispronunciation of seek — but I do like the idea of a man ordering a dog to attack by pointing to his enemy and shouting: “Thus! Thus! Thus!”
Sic in brackets in printed material also means thus, and it is an editor’s or commenter’s way of saying, “I know this is wrong, but this is how it appears in the original.”
Is midnight 12 a.m. or 12 p.m.? And which one is lunchtime?
Neither. The very early morning starts at 12:01 a.m., and the very early afternoon starts at 12:01 p.m. The abbreviations a.m. and p.m. stand for ante meridiem and post meridiem, “before midday” and “after midday” respectively, while midday itself is neither before nor after midday, which is why we call it noon, even though noon means nine and stands for three.
Noon comes from nona hora, the ninth hour, but in liturgical use, the ninth hour meant the ninth hour after sunrise, which was generally expected to be about 6 a.m., thus making the ninth hour 3 p.m. Noon meaning 3 p.m. came to be a synonym for midday, and eventually it slid toward morning and ended up being the time between 11:59 a.m. and 12:01 p.m., what we now think of as the middle of the day.
The thing to remember: There is no 12 a.m. or 12 p.m. — there is noon, and there is midnight.
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Home and Away
You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here.
As National Review magazine readers will know, I loved the television series Justified. I’ve recently reread the source material, Elmore Leonard’s novel Raylan, and it is terrific. The series reimagines some of the characters from the novel, making one of the big bads of the book a woman called Mags Bennett, played by Margo Martindale. With all due respect to Elmore Leonard’s fantastic work, I did find myself wishing that Mags Bennett would show up in the novel, so thrilling and full was Martindale’s performance, making the hillbilly gangster a real villain for the ages. I also reread Ian Fleming’s first two James Bond novels, Casino Royale and Live and Let Die. One of my little hobbies is reading older literature with an economic eye, and it is hilarious how the rarefied luxuries of Bond’s world in the 1950s are today the most ordinary of things (e.g., an avocado) and how the refined Bond does things that almost no regular middle-class person in our time does, like taking the bus uptown in Manhattan. Bond on the bus — funny stuff. But the racial stuff in Live and Let Die? Oh, my. Ian Fleming, you are more canceled than a crypto bro’s Centurion card.
As I have written many times, Dobbs is the beginning of the political fight over abortion, not the end of it. But thank God for the end of Roe v. Wade, a blot on our nation and on the Supreme Court in particular.
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The Dumbest Criticism of Biden
Joe Biden makes it too easy for the comedians: Obviously hoping to dispel concerns about his age and his fitness for the presidency, President Biden took a bicycle ride and cruised over to a crowd of gawkers, and then promptly tipped over and fell on his patootie. Biden has long been defensive about fitness — you’ll remember him challenging that random guy in Iowa to a push-up contest. That’s not how you fix your image, and, at Biden’s age, fixing his image is probably a foolish thing to try, anyway.
Biden’s most bitter critics have a litany: He doesn’t do evening events, he goes home to Delaware every weekend to rest up, etc. Scandalous, I’m sure.
But those are the things I like about Biden. Almost the only things I like about him.
Biden’s is a special case, because he is so very old and so very manifestly frail, but criticizing presidents for their leisure time has become part of the ritual of the imperator cult, and younger, more robust men have been criticized for their down time and their recreation. Before there was Biden, there was Donald Trump and his golf and “executive time,” before Trump it was Barack Obama and his vacation days, and before that it was George W. Bush and his vacation days. Trump on the links, Obama at Martha’s Vineyard, Bush at the ranch, and Biden in Delaware. I’ve been to Delaware, and I think I’d rather spend the weekend in Martha’s Vineyard or clearing brush in the hot Texas sun with W. Your preferences may vary.
This isn’t a particularly 21st-century thing: Ronald Reagan was criticized for his down time and his apparently light schedule. Republicans who lambasted Michelle Obama’s travel budget were echoing Republicans in the 19th century who blasted Mary Todd Lincoln’s household expenditures. (Lincoln got a lot of grief from members of his own party, since Democrats weren’t being heard from that much on such issues, at that time being busy in their vigorous defense of treachery and slavery.) Nothing new under the sun, etc. Dwight Eisenhower had an extraordinarily eventful presidency, and he had the political savvy to let America believe that he spent most of his time playing golf. Do you remember that SNL skit in which Reagan is the avuncular goof in public and the ruthless mastermind behind the scenes? That was Eisenhower.
But, of course, Joe Biden is no Dwight Eisenhower — although he is so very dust-fartingly agéd that he was a teenager during Ike’s presidency. But there are parallels between the two presidencies — important ones: The Covid-19 epidemic was not World War II, but it did involve an extraordinary deployment of federal resources, heavy expense, and economic disaster. Like Warren G. Harding after World War I, Eisenhower was a “return to normalcy” Republican who helped the country to move on from World War II. Eisenhower had planned the Normandy invasion, but when he left office in 1961, military spending was lower than it had been when he assumed office in 1953. ($52.8 billion vs. $49.6 billion as Treasury runs the numbers.) There was even a small budget surplus in the last year of his presidency — like every other president, Eisenhower had no real control over spending, but he was a capable politician who worked intelligently with congressional Democrats, whom he often found easier to negotiate with than his fellow Republicans, who were, then as now, impossible.
Joe Biden advertised himself as a “return to normalcy” Democrat, but he has, so far, failed to make good on that promise. He may prefer quiet weekends at home and an early bedtime (the wisdom of which becomes clearer to me every year), but he hasn’t done the real political work. Normalcy is an agenda, not just a lifestyle.
The relevant issue for Joe Biden is not the depredations of age but his moral and political weakness — and these are not new: Biden has been a coward for the entirety of his political career. Biden may have some centrist instincts, but these are and always have been a matter of political advantage-seeking than a matter of governing principle or moderation in policy. He sets them aside when it suits. When Biden thinks pretending to be Donald Trump will benefit him, he pretends to be Donald Trump; when Biden thinks pretending to be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will benefit him, he pretends to be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He’ll do populist-nationalist for the Teamsters and he’ll do woke for the wokesters. Biden is a man who does not engage in introspection, because there is no there there. There is, in the midst of all that ridiculous posturing, no single sinew that serves no political appetite of Biden’s, but is just Biden. One of the great ironies of life is that the more self-centered a man is, the easier he is for other men to manipulate — a man without a real foundation is easy to push around. If you’ve ever wondered why these Silicon Valley billionaires with more money than Croesus and Paul McCartney put together are so easily bullied into conforming with whatever silliness is demanded of members of their class on any given day, that is it — they may be excellent technicians, excellent managers, and excellent investors, but all that “Let’s change the world!” principles-and-purpose talk is just advertising: mission as marketing. They are the hollow men, but stuffed with money rather than straw.
A return to normalcy would mean, among other things, winding down and reversing the elevated Covid-era spending that has supercharged the supply-chain problem and made it into an economic crisis whose main manifestation — higher prices for energy, food, and consumer goods — is very likely to be the undoing of Biden’s administration. Instead, Biden proposes to entrench and expand that spending. A larger and more expensive state is ground gained in the public sector’s war on the private sector, and Democrats are not about to abandon those gains.
Inflation is the No. 1 issue right now (and also issues No. 3, 4, 5, and 6), but it is not the only one. The cultural radicalism of the Left, the socialist ambitions of Democrats in the Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders camp, the corruption of important institutions by narrowminded enforcers of petty political orthodoxies — these are all things that Joe Biden as a Democratic president is positioned to speak to. Speaking to them would do him some good. I hate the way in which clichés constrain our political imagination, but those who talk of Biden’s need for a “Sister Souljah moment” are not wrong to be thinking in that direction.
But Biden can’t do it. Archimedes once said that if he had a long enough lever and a place to stand, he could move the world. Biden as president of these United States has the longest lever in the world, but he doesn’t have a place to stand. He is out there floating in space, a man in zero political gravity.
Another dumb cliché of our political conversation is the need for “unity,” but ignore that for a moment and consider this from Ted Widmer, writing in That August Journalistic Institution in the closing days of the 2020 campaign:
Many Americans remember the 1950s as a banal time of sock hops and drive-ins, but the decade began badly, with a nasty war in Korea, constant friction with China and Russia, and bitter sniping between Republicans and Democrats, who were no longer interested in the consensus that had led America to victory in World War II. In the final two years of Harry Truman’s presidency, the nation’s capital turned angry and dysfunctional. Congress and the White House were at odds; financial scandals plagued the administration; and an ugly new politics of bullying, perfected by Repulican [sic] Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, was rising quickly.
To unite the country, Eisenhower first had to bring together his own party, which was no simple matter. A deeply conservative Ohio senator, Robert Taft, wanted the nomination for himself. “Mr. Republican,” as Taft was known, held important cards as a party insider, but he lacked charisma, and his cranky isolationism put him at odds with the party’s more moderate wing, centered in New York and New England. These East Coast Republicans gravitated naturally to Eisenhower, whose sparkling résumé included stints as the president of Columbia University and as NATO’s supreme commander.
No one would call Eisenhower a scintillating speaker, and he looked older than his 62 years. But he understood that less could be more, and his calming speeches stood in sober contrast to the heated rhetoric of the times.
But it wasn’t just style and rhetoric. As Widmer notes, it was policy, too, including policy compromises that so irritated the Right that one might reasonably argue that the modern conservative movement in the United States was at least as much about opposition to Eisenhower and Republican moderation as it was to progressivism at home and socialism abroad. “Our principles are round,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote, “and Eisenhower is square.”
(Eisenhower’s great sin, as far as post-war conservatives were concerned, was his part-and-parcel acceptance of the New Deal. Only a few decades later, the great champion of conservatism in the United States would be Ronald Reagan, a Republican who described himself as a New Deal Democrat, a lifelong FDR man alienated by the radicalism of his party in the 1960s. In 2016, most conservatives linked arms with Donald Trump, who not only accepted and celebrated New Deal and Great Society entitlements but refused even to consider reforming them, no matter their ruinous financial cost. As with Biden’s daft drift left, Trump’s welfare chauvinism was mainly a matter of moral cowardice and political self-interest, but the fact that defending progressive entitlements is how one panders to conservatives in 2022 says a great deal about how the movement that calls itself “conservative” has changed.)
What Biden needs is some real conservatism.
There is a theoretical side of conservatism (read your Mises!) and there is a folkish conservatism, too, and the two are sometimes at odds. The theoretical side of conservatism prioritizes free markets and free enterprise, small government, scrupulous constitutional interpretation, etc. The folkish side of conservatism understands that there is a relationship between stability and prosperity, hence the traditional — but now almost extinct — conservative aversion to radical social change and radical political change. Sometimes, there are radical policy shifts in response to emergencies (real and imagined), and the conservative habit is to undo these and restore the status quo ante once the emergency has passed. The progressive tendency is just the opposite: It is Robert Higgs’s Crisis and Leviathan, with progressives ready to take any emergency as an occasion to saddle up and ride Leviathan onward toward utopia. Biden came into office with the country’s politics even angrier and dumber than usual as a result of the Trump experience, and with the economy and a good deal of government in disorder in the aftermath of the Covid epidemic. The most important work that Biden could have done would have been the work of undoing, but he does not have it in him to resist the rage-addled utopians around him — neither them nor the self-interested chiselers who use progressive moral crusades to fill their own pockets and to create sinecures for their allies and benefits for their dependents, which is what that expansion of the federal machine is really all about.
Does Joe Biden take a lot of naps? I don’t know. Winston Churchill did, and he never challenged anybody to a push-up contest. (Maybe a drinking contest.) Dinner at home with the family and bed by nine isn’t exactly a political agenda, but I’ll vote for it 19 times out of 20.
If anything, I wish Biden were more retiring than he is. The last thing we need is another swaggering buffoon in the White House. Give me the hardheaded competence of a taciturn Puritan such as Calvin Coolidge any day over the bumbling grandiosity of a Barack Obama or its echo in his elderly epigone.
The trouble with Biden is what he is doing, not what he is not doing — or, looked at another way, the problem with Biden is not with what he is not doing but with what he is not undoing.
Speaking of Dumb Criticism . . .
As you can probably tell from reading this newsletter, I enjoy my friend and former National Review colleague Jonah Goldberg’s Remnant podcast. Bearing in mind the maxim that one should criticize in private and praise in public, I will take issue with one tiny little thing that isn’t really specific to Jonah, but something that he gave a pretty good example of in his weekend podcast.
Jonah, like me, is a critic of Joe Biden who also thinks (let me put some words in his mouth) that Donald Trump was a wretched weaselly bumbling immoral ignoramus who, morally and intellectually speaking, would have to ride a hot-air balloon straight up for an hour and a half before he rose to the lowest gutter in New York, who is about as well-suited to the presidency as I am to dancing in the Bolshoi ballet.
Naturally, every time Jonah criticizes Biden, he hears from the usual chorus of morons: “Why’d you vote for him, then, huh?” Which, as Jonah explains, he didn’t. As to the broader line of criticism — that having opposed Donald Trump for being a creepy little moron who tried to stage a coup in 2020 means that Trump’s critics are somehow morally responsible for the multitude of dumb and wrong things Biden has done and can reasonably be expected to continue doing — Jonah offered a lengthy, intelligent, logically sound response, which you should listen to, but which I will summarize: Choosing someone to do a job is not a preemptive endorsement of everything he does in that job thereafter. Even partisan Democrats who voted for — donated to, campaigned for — Biden are not morally responsible when Biden does something wrong or something with which they disagree. (We could stand to hear a little more from those disappointed Democrats.) Both parties sometimes resemble criminal conspiracies, but politics is not in fact a criminal conspiracy in which every conspirator is liable under the law for every crime committed by every other conspirator.
The thing is, almost nobody really believes that A-B line of criticism.
The argument that Jonah describes is made in earnest by a very small number of genuine morons and by a considerably larger number of people speaking in bad faith. Jonah observed that he is used to getting that sort of stupidity on Twitter, but was disheartened to get it from within the Dispatch, the publication he founded a while back. He shouldn’t be surprised — every comments section in the whole of this fallen world looks about the same, from National Review to the New York Times: There is some good and useful conversation happening among intelligent and responsible people, and there is the digital version of a bunch of monkeys masturbating and flinging poo at one another in the zoo. You get a different mix of thoughtfulness and poo-fullness in different publications. It is amazing to me (but not surprising) that the founders of Twitter got private-plane rich by saying: “You know what would make the comments sections better? Getting rid of the content!”
The Internet makes all of us stupid in ways, and it hits intelligent and sensitive people harder than it does morons and the insensate, who are more difficult to make a dent in. You get a weird interaction between well-known public figures such as Jonah, who writes under his own name and thinks about things, and people whose words and affect are shaped by anonymity, urgency, and immediacy. Because of the social nature of social media, that conversation looms larger in our consciousness than it should. As observed by Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, one of the few members of Congress whom I do not wish to see driven into exile:
Political Twitter isn’t real. Only 22 percent of Americans use it, and more than half of that 1/5 never follow politics on Twitter. The vast majority of traffic on Twitter is driven by well under 2% of the public. And yet politicians – again, left and right are barely distinguishable – in seeking to cater to this tiny minority and the algorithms that drive addicted-engagement.
Political algorithms run on rage.
Nobody goes viral for making a good faith argument.
Nobody goes viral for admitting there are policy trade-offs.
My criticism of Jonah isn’t what he said so much as the fact that he said it — I don’t think that this sort of thing is worth 15 minutes of his time. Of course, it’s his time, and he can do whatever he wants with it, but I think that we sort of pollute ourselves and the discourse by spending so much time thinking about and responding to these morons, miscreants, and bad-faith actors. I think that they rub off on us in both subtle and unsubtle ways. And by spending so much time and energy on that tiny little slice of the conversation, we elevate it — and its values and its style — far above where that sort of thing would otherwise sit in our common life.
I am sure that I am guilty of this myself at many times and in many ways — in fact, I’ll give you an example immediately below — and I have seen this very often in friends who are a little more sensitively constituted than I am, who get so worked up by Twitter, the comments section, etc., that they come to believe that this is 98 percent of the conversation rather than the 2 percent that it is. But, of course, it is difficult not to be affected, especially when the conversation is about you personally.
The solution, of course, is contempt. And by that I do not mean a haughty intellectual posture (though, sure, yeah, guilty as charged) or irrational dismissiveness or pseudo-Nietzschean arrogance or anything like that, but rational dismissiveness. My neighbors once shared with us a very amusing post on NextDoor in which some well-meaning busybody began his advice with the immortal words: “I’m not a neurologist per se . . .” I’m pretty good on a few subjects, but if I started lecturing my friend the orthopedic surgeon on orthopedic surgery, I suspect that he wouldn’t even bother laughing at me — he would just be confused. We understand that dynamic in almost every sphere of life except politics, because we get confused about what democracy means: Democracy means one vote is as good as another, but it doesn’t mean that one thought, one sentence, or one point of view is as good as another. It doesn’t even mean that one voter is as good as another, only that we have agreed to give each vote equal weight as a procedural convenience.
(The fact that those equal votes are based on unequal values is where democracy gets kind of interesting — de jure equality has a complicated relationship with de facto inequality.)
Contempt is a natural — and good — byproduct of a rightly ordered understanding of public life and the hierarchy associated with it, as much as we good democrats and egalitarians instinctively resist any acknowledgement of hierarchy. Some things — and some ideas, and some writing, and some morals — really do belong at the bottom of the pile. And, with all due concern for Christian charity, so do some people.
(Put an asterisk next to “Christian charity” if you like, but Jonah Goldberg, who describes himself as an “Upper West Side demi-Jew,” exhibits more of that than most political commentators do.)
So, a plea to political writers and pundits and such: Try not to spend so much time responding to Twitter and its ilk. You may be well-intentioned, but you aren’t doing the world any favors.
And now, let me set aside my own advice. I was thinking about particularly rank comments sections and took a peek — against my better judgment — at the Washington Post, specifically at the comments at the bottom of a Jennifer Rubin column. (Related to points above: There’s plenty to criticize about Rubin, but she doesn’t write the comments.) The first one that caught my eye:
When the Republican Party has spent the past 75 years supporting candidates who advocate racist, xenophobic, misogynist policies and oppose environmental protection and public health programs, etc, etc, — then support for candidates who are election deniers is just another evolutionay adaptation in the Party’s nihilistic, anti-democractic agenda.
So, there’s regular illiteracy (I didn’t fix anything), and there’s historical illiteracy, too: If racism is your master criterion, then consider that 75 years ago, the nation was looking forward to the presidential election of 1948, in which Democrats divided their votes between Harry S. Truman, who had joined the Ku Klux Klan to advance his political career, and Strom Thurmond, a vile racial opportunist who broke with the mainstream of his party and ran as a segregationist “Dixiecrat” insurgent, while Republicans backed Thomas Dewey, a New York governor whose hallmark accomplishments included signing the first state law prohibiting racial discrimination in employment — way back in 1945, when Democrats following Franklin Roosevelt were busy herding Americans into concentration camps because of their ancestry.
Outrage is intoxicating, and, like all intoxicants, it makes you stupid.
And Furthermore . . .
Here’s an observation: You can tell a great deal about somebody by how he responds to the sound of a crying baby. It is an aural Rorschach test.
There is a podcast called “Millennial History,” and “a podcast called ‘Millennial History’” sounds to me like the soundtrack to life in Hell, but it is, in fact, pretty good. One episode that stuck with me talks about life growing up in an orphanage in Romania under communism, in the last days of Nicolai Ceausescu.
You would think that orphanages would be loud — very loud — with the sound of crying babies, but, as the podcast explained, the socialist orphanage was a terribly quiet place: The babies stopped crying because they learned that no one was coming to help them, and that their crying was a waste of energy. Babies are designed to learn, and that is what those babies learned: Don’t bother crying — no one is coming. That is one of maybe the four or five worst things I have ever heard, and it has stayed with me.
One of the best examples of the sort of behavior that used to be called, without irony, gentlemanly that I can remember came from a priest who was celebrating Mass in New York when a baby started crying in the congregation — a remarkably loud baby, a baby with the lungs of Pavarotti. The mother was embarrassed, but the priest — I am sure he had used this line 1,000 times — said: “We don’t mind crying babies in this place.” He gestured around the sanctuary. “That’s how all this got started.”
If man is man in the likeness of God, then every mother is a tabernacle. That is one way of seeing the world.
The other one is man-as-meat. I don’t think there is a third choice.
Words about Words
My friend and colleague Andrew C. McCarthy sends a question — “Prudent or prudential?” — and then does a far better job of answering it in the legal context than I would have. Writes McC.:
It is customary in the law to refer to prudential rules, as distinguished from mandates. The idea is that, to take one example, the right against self-incrimination is a constitutional mandate, but Miranda is a prudential rule that is designed to protect the core mandate. The prudential rules become norms, often to the point that they become indistinguishable from the core they were first conceived to protect — e.g., the Supreme Court held in a 1990s case, called Dickerson v. United States, that the Miranda rule has now blended into the Fifth Amendment guarantee. And I suppose prudential is better than prophylaxis, another word to describe what prudential rules are supposed to do.
Prudent means careful, or having due regard for consequences. (Don’t write future consequences, as I almost did there: All consequences come in the future.) Prudential means involving or exhibiting prudence, requiring judgment, etc. A prudential decision is often discretionary, subject to guidance. For example, the General Prudential Rule of nautical navigation, in which “C” means “captain” and “V” means “vessel.”
The General Prudential Rule: C must consider all dangers of navigation, collision, & special circumstances, “including the limitations of the vessel”. C must insure V is properly manned & equipped including appropriate charts, weather info, etc., and have knowledge of other’s maneuvering practices.
Seamanship requires much prudence, based on experience: That is why we speak of an experienced hand taking a newcomer under his tutelage to “show him the ropes,” the literal sense of which is showing somehow how the rigging of a sailing ship is operated.
A “couple of things” or a “couple things”?
One of the long-term trends in the evolution of English is that, over time, English-speakers simplify and streamline words and expressions. “Couple of” is like many other “x of” expressions that have, over time, dropped the “of.” In Daniel Webster’s time, it was standard to write of a man having a “half a million of dollars” rather than “half a million dollars.” “A dozen of eggs” became “a dozen eggs,” etc. Myriad, from the Greek number word meaning 10,000, was in its earliest English usages a noun, used like dozen: “The Spartans faced a myriad of Persian mercenaries.” Over time, the of has mostly disappeared, and the word has evolved into a pseudo-adjective: “He had myriad reasons for concern.”
I suppose I would use “a couple things” if I were a political speechwriter, the times being what they are, even though I think a “couple of things” is less offensively democratic-sounding. I wouldn’t be too much of a pedant about insisting that a “couple of things” be two things and two things only — “a couple of things” can mean “a few things.”
Sometimes, English moves in the opposite direction, away from simplification and effacement. “What in Hell?” became “What in the hell?” after English-speakers stopped believing that Hell was a proper noun and started treating it as a common obscenity, like “What the f**k?”
I prefer my Hell uppercase.
By way of parallel, “Earth” should be uppercase when used to refer to the planet, “Life on Earth,” “What on Earth were you thinking?” and lowercase only when using “earth” in the sense of “soil,” i.e. “farmers who till the earth.”
Also . . .
Occasioned by a sentence above: Make sure you distinguish your de jure (by law) from your du jour (of the day). I have more than once heard someone ask for about the “soup de jure” and imagined Learned Hand in the kitchen.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
Home and Away
You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here.
A little refresher about Hayek’s theory of social change: The way to really influence the thinking of a society, he argued, isn’t to try to identify and cultivate once-in-a-generation geniuses or to try to change the minds of the people at large through conventional mass-media operations and democratic electioneering, but to work in the upper-middle, with the people he called “second-hand dealers in ideas.” That phrase sometimes strikes people as sounding dismissive, but it isn’t — the people Hayek was talking about are important leaders in their communities, their businesses, their industries, and in other kinds of institutions.
I have a feeling that he was talking about a lot of the people who read this newsletter. And if that is the case, I have something that will be of interest to you.
National Review Institute does a very cool fellowship for college students, but we also have a very fun and interesting program for adults — and here I don’t mean policy-and-politics nerds but real people with real jobs and such — the “Burke to Buckley” Regional Fellowship Program, which will be offered in Dallas and Chicago in the fall. I recommend it, and not just because I participate in the program.
This is an eight-week program for the sort of people usually described in marketing copy as “mid-career professionals” — that means, more or less, people from 35 to 55 who have had a real job for ten to 25 years — with the aim of hosting high-level discussions and building networks of likeminded people who can help our ideas — and each other — advance through friendship and cooperation. Each class has 20 to 25 participants, coming from a pretty broad range of professions and industries and backgrounds. (You know, diversity — the meaningful kind.) This isn’t for recent graduates and isn’t really meant for political professionals or would-be politicians. If you really do know your Hayek, you know the importance of those “second-hand dealers in ideas.” If you don’t know your Hayek because you’ve been busy doing something like running a business, making money, etc., then . . . I’m pretty sure there’s going to be Hayek on the reading list.
The fall programs run from mid-September to mid-November. We get together over dinner and discuss the selected readings, which come from the foundational conservative texts. Each dinner is hosted by a guest moderator, usually a National Review writer or a fellow at National Review Institute, who guides the discussion. It’s something more than a book club but less than graduate school.
Some of the discussion headings are:
William F. Buckley Jr. and American Conservatism
The Founders’ Constitution
Economic Freedom and Political Freedom
Burke, Prudence, and the Spirit of Conservatism
Conservatism, Libertarianism, and Fusionism
Mediating Structures between the State and the Individual
Conservatism, Democracy, and Foreign Policy
The Conservative Spirit and Civic Gratitude
It’s good to explore the ideas in more depth and detail, and it’s even better to make new friends who share your interests and values. This is really a good opportunity to do both of those things. My experience — and I think this is the common experience — is that it is difficult to really make new and lasting friends as an adult, and difficult to meet people who really share your values. And by that I don’t really mean political opinions but the values of study and discussion, good conversation, and continued lifelong interest in the things that matter most for our communities and our country. We talk a lot about Bill Buckley’s legacy and values, and two of the things he valued most were conversation and friendship. I expect that many of you have that in common, and I know I’ve enjoyed the people I’ve met through the program.
The application deadline is July 15. There’s a webpage with more information and the application right here.
Tomorrow is the Feast of the Martyrs of Ararat or the “Ten Thousand Martyrs,” formerly a popular Christian celebration of 10,000 Roman soldiers who converted to Christianity and were crucified en masse by the Roman emperor in retaliation. (That’s a literal myriad of martyrs.) It is a very moving story and a popular subject in Renaissance painting, the kind of stark religious example that has everything you might want except for the part about being true. The legend first appears some several centuries after the alleged incident, and, as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, the story is “utterly improbable.” The cult of the 10,000 martyrs of Ararat was officially suppressed in 1969. There never was a St. Christopher, either, but you can still buy his medal on any sidewalk around St. Peter’s.
We do not need fictitious martyrs — the tyrants of this world are making new ones every day, and it is likely that the junta in Beijing will add Cardinal Zen to the Christian martyrology. The cardinal, in a laconic observation for the ages, remarked after his arrested by Chinese authorities:
Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about politics, language, and culture, though you may be happy to know that that is not usually the order of priority. The Tuesday is available only to NRPlus members — no scrubs! If you would like to join our happy if sometimes cantankerous community — and I hope you will — you can sign up here.
Having experienced a GDP contraction of about 1.5 percent in the last quarter, the United States may be on its way to a formal recession — two or more consecutive quarters GDP contraction — but, even if that turns out not to be the case, many economists forecast that the country is headed for a recession in the near future. As Bloomberg sees it, the spike in consumer prices has the United Kingdom enduring a “recession in all but name,” and you could say as much about the United States.
Of particular concern is the metric of “real” — meaning inflation-adjusted — wages, which declined by 1.7 percent between January of 2021 and January of 2022, and which have continued to decline over the course of this year, most recently falling by 0.6 percent in April. With real wages declining and household wealth being eaten into by declining share prices and home values, Americans’ real standard of living is under siege. It is bad when Americans report that they are feeling uneasy or pessimistic about the economy, as expressed in such metrics as the consumer-confidence index, but it is worse when those subjective evaluations are attested to by the quantifiable aspects of economic life.
I am very cynical about politics and super-double-atomic cynical about the Democratic Party and its operatives. That being said, I don’t think that the Democrats are pretending to care about abortion (they care about abortion more than they care about any other issue) or gun control, but I do expect them to lean into those issues extra heavily as the economic news stays bad or gets worse. Those debates already are ghastly and stupid, and I am confident that they will get more ghastly and more stupid in the coming weeks and months — more violent, too, as the arson attacks on anti-abortion groups and crisis-pregnancy centers suggest.
We maintain a silly, superstitious, and generally dishonest discourse about the relationship between the state of the economy and which party controls federal elected offices, especially the presidency. During the last year of his presidency, Donald Trump saw the worst quarter of economic contraction in U.S. history followed by the best quarter of GDP growth in U.S. history — neither of which had very much to do with the president or the policies of his administration. These were driven by Covid-19 shutdowns and the rollout of the vaccine, which produced a real GDP roller coaster in 2020. The Trump administration had some good economic policies (provided in no small part by Larry Kudlow and Kevin Hassett, National Review’s former economics editor and the senior adviser to NR’s Capital Matters, respectively) and some genuinely dumb policies (provided by cranks and crackpots such as Peter Navarro), but neither the good policies nor the bad ones were the main drivers of economic events in 2020 — or, indeed, throughout the Trump presidency. Presidents do not actually have the ability to enact a great deal of economic policy on their own (that’s why they all end up loving tariffs — tariffs they can do on their own), and don’t get much done when the other party is in full or partial control of Congress, as was the case for most of Trump’s presidency. And the effects of big changes in policy (such as the tax reforms enacted in 2017 by Acting President Paul Ryan) usually take a long time to really show themselves — for good and for ill.
So, it’s a dumb parlor game — but Washington’s favorite parlor game — to cook up narratives assigning credit and blame for dramatic economic events to presidents. The subprime-mortgage meltdown and related credit crisis that unfolded at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency were much more the result of policies enacted between the 1930s and the 1980s than they were anything of Bush’s doing. Ronald Reagan benefitted enormously from a booming economy in the 1980s, but the real beneficiary of Reagan-era economic reforms was Bill Clinton, whose intellectually empty and morally compromised administration was buoyed by the second half of the Long Boom.
Speaking of the Long Boom — long, but no so long as we might have hoped — here is an interesting bit of history: In Wired’s famous 1997 “Long Boom” essay, there were ten “spoiler” scenarios offered that might prevent the emergence of the prosperous, happy future the authors imagined. These included: (1) U.S.–China cold war; (2) Decline of productivity growth from new technology; (3) Russian decline into a mafia-state that menaces Europe; (4) Breakdown in European integration; (5) Ecological crisis that disrupts food supply; (6) Terrorism; (7) Unexpected increase in cancer rates; (8) Spike in energy prices as alternative-fuel sources fail to make up for disruptions in fossil-fuel provision; (9) Epidemic; (10) Revanchist cultural backlash against globalization. Other than being overwhelmed by increased cancer prevalence, we walked into every one of those socioeconomic land mines — nine out of ten! None of those was really the doing of a U.S. president or his administration. Maybe the Bush and Clinton and Bush administrations should have taken al-Qaeda and its predecessors more seriously, maybe the Obama administration should have done a, b, and c on energy instead of x, y, and z, maybe somebody should have given Vladimir Putin a hug back in the day — you can tell yourself any story that makes you feel good, but none of this was the result of any particular president, presidency, or presidential decision.
What is at work in our attitude toward the presidency is the “feudal mentality” as described by Paul Ricoeur in Memory, History, Forgetting:
How could rumor, the false news of the capacity of kings to cure scrofula, spread and impose itself unless with the help of a quasi-religious devotion as regards royalty? What had to be presumed, even while guarding against anachronism, was the force of a specific mental structure, the “feudal mentality.” In contrast to the history of ideas, not rooted in any social ground, history had to make a place for a deliberately historical treatment of “ways of feeling and thinking.” What was important were the collective, symbolic practices, the unperceived mental representations, of different social groups . . . .
Ricoeur was writing in response to his reading of Marc Bloch’s The Royal Touch: Sacred Monarchy and Scrofula in England and France. Everybody who laughs about how our peasant ancestors thought about the magical curative powers of kings should ask themselves why they think that the economy grows only when the president “cares about people like me” or some such related rubbish.
A better account of recession than the economics of the divine presidency is offered by the “Austrian” school of economics, so called because its principal exponents were two Austrian geniuses, F. A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, who did their most important work in the United Kingdom and the United States, respectively, owing to the lamentable European habit of chasing its best minds off the Continent. I am not an economist and surely will be guilty here of oversimplification, but the Austrian view of recessions seems to me very useful right now, though it may not be as useful in understanding other recessions. (Every unhappy economy, like every unhappy family, is unhappy in its own way.) The Austrians put money (particularly in the form of credit) at the center of their analysis, and argue that artificially cheap money (artificially low interest rates) causes capital to flow to investments that would be unprofitable in unmanipulated economic conditions — and a recession is what happens when those “malinvestments” are unwound when the manipulation becomes too expensive and the underlying economic reality asserts itself.
Our current trouble with inflation and stagnant growth is a particularly interesting example of this, to my mind at least, because in this situation the real economy — the exchange of physical goods and services — is at the center of the conversation because of supply-chain disruptions. If you can’t get that Ukrainian grain onto ships and get those ships into foreign ports, then it doesn’t matter what kind of clever policy engineering your government agencies or central bankers engage in — the wheat isn’t going to be there, and you cannot fiat it into the grain silos by means of policy or legislation. We have had a lot of very cheap money for a very long time, and negative interest rates are still a thing in some corners of the global economy. We have had oodles of capital sloshing around the economy, but somehow we still have not built the things that are most needed. And so we do not have enough oil and gas pipelines, tanker ships, regassification facilities, and other such unfashionable bits of life-giving infrastructure.
Lots of solar panels on rooftops in California, though.
I have, of course, strayed from the Austrian monetary analysis here, but you didn’t sign up for a retired theater critic’s newsletter for econometrics. The lesson that should be obvious to all of us by this point, however, is not something that you need a doctorate in economics to understand. “The economy” is not a product of government policy, the federal budget, the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration, or — thanks goodness — Joe Biden’s best ideas on any given Monday morning. (I am pretty sure President Biden’s best idea on any given Monday morning is: Oatmeal!) The economy is real stuff, real goods and real services that have real value because real people need and demand them. Congress and the president and the whole cabinet can get together and thunder with one voice: “Let there be baby formula!” and this will have no effect.
(“Fiat lux? Fiat formula!”)
We need a good deal less presidential magic in our economic thinking and a good deal more real-world — the real real world! — work. That’s true on both sides of the aisle. If progressives were serious about climate change, they’d be looking to replace coal with natural gas around the world and working to facilitate the expansion of nuclear energy — the obstacles to which are mainly financial and political rather than technical or physical. Conservatives who are serious about long-term growth and economic innovation have to be serious about the acquisition and cultivation of brainpower, which means working to fix what actually ails our universities rather than just using campus “woke” shenanigans to raise money — and it means taking a much more grown-up view of immigration as well.
The current economic troubles are likely to deliver control of Congress to Republicans in 2023 and may contribute to the election of a Republican president in 2024. But while I am confident in the near-term electoral prospects of the Republican Party, I am not at all convinced that Republicans know what to do with power. “The economy sucked under Joe Biden” may get you elected, but it isn’t a real analysis, and it isn’t the basis for a real agenda. People who love to advertise themselves as “patriots” should understand that winning the election is the beginning of the work — and the beginning of their obligation — rather than the culmination of it.
Do you know the phrase, “’Tis an ill wind that blows no man some good”? The first recorded use is in a book of proverbs compiled by John Heyworth and published in 1546. What is means is that almost every change in circumstances has both winners and losers, that an event that hurts someone’s interests works to someone else’s advantage. The stock market is tumbling right now, and it is likely that house prices will decline, too. That is going to irritate a lot of older, wealthier people with lots of savings (and lots of house), but it is a great opportunity for younger people with less savings. I am not a stock-market forecaster (which is to say, I, like Christine O’Donnell, am not a witch), but the lower stocks go, the better the opportunity to invest. Unfortunately, when the market tanks, the fear often is contagious, and it scares off would-be buyers who should be attracted by the sudden discount. Now, imagine there’s a lawyer in a pinstripe suit standing behind me looking stern and saying, “This is not financial advice” and all that — but, unless you think that companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook are in a death spiral along with the rest of the publicly traded companies listed on the stock markets, you should be alert to the opportunity presented by a bear market and/or a recession. This is (probably) the real beginning of the “buy low” part of “buy low, sell high.”
In Other News . . .
Politicians have this in common with writers and artists: They often spend a great deal of time thinking about how they will be remembered. They shouldn’t worry about how history will treat them — most of them won’t be remembered at all, at least not for very long.
You can flip through old issues of National Reviewand see names that once were household words — Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Gore Vidal, Jack Kemp — that already have faded into near-obscurity, even though none of them has been gone for more than 20 years.
Marcus Aurelius, who was the emperor of Rome when he wasn’t busy writing, observed that the cemeteries of his time were full of monuments with famous names on them and the notation, “The last of his name.” He had two good arguments against worrying about the views of posterity: One, posterity is likely to have no view of you at all; and, two, a wise man has very little regard for the opinions of his contemporaries, and there is no reason to think that the opinions of future generations will be any less contemptible. Why should the grandchildren of the rubes and scoundrels we know today be much improved?
Immortality — or at least a long afterlife — is a sneaky thing. When Joey Tempest (the stage name of Rolf Magnus Joakim Larsson) first picked out those four notes that would become the inescapable theme from Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” he surely did not know that he was writing a riff that would go on to be about as well-known as the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a couple of lines of music that would end up being the only thing he is known for. And that isn’t to denigrate his work: Most musicians never write one line of music that anybody cares about or remembers. There are millions of people in this world who know that music who have never heard of the song’s author or his band, who know the music from sporting events and from other contexts. Everybody knows this music. The London Symphony Orchestra plays “The Final Countdown,” though apparently doesn’t love it enough to hire a drummer for the evening. I’m sure Joey Tempest has done a thousand other worthy and interesting things with his life, but years after he is dead and gone, if anybody asks his grandkids what Grandpa Joey did, four notes on a piano (or nine if they’re needed) will suffice.
James Earl Jones has done everything from Stanley Kubrick movies (Dr. Strangelove) to Shakespeare (Hamlet, Coriolanus, King Lear), but, to a certain kind of person, he will always be first and foremost the voice of Darth Vader — a role he is still playing at 91 years of age. Presumably, he commands a higher salary today than the $7,000 he was paid for the original Star Wars movie. Coriolanus will probably outlive Star Wars, but I expect my grandchildren will be trying to Force-choke irritating fellow kindergartners someday decades hence.
Words About Words
Speaking of names that are “household words,” we owe that expression to William Shakespeare, as so often is the case. In the same passage — the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V — Shakespeare also gives us “band of brothers.”
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
If you’re wondering whether it is St. Crispin or St. Crispian or St. Crispin Crispian, it is St. Crispin and St. Crispinian — the two were twin brothers martyred in the late third century.
Harry’s glorious victory at Agincourt is not the only battle to happen on St. Crispin’s Day, October 25 — the catastrophic “Charge of the Light Brigade” happened on the same day in 1854, and that one went the other way. We also owe a famous figure of speech to that battle, which inspired Tennyson’s famous poem:
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Call me a reactionary (you would not be the first), but I think we really lost something when we stopped using the liturgical calendar for secular purposes. At many English schools the academic terms are Michaelmas, Hilary, and Trinity (the fall, winter, and spring terms, respectively), named for the feasts of Michaelmas (September 29), St. Hilary (January 13), and the Feast of the Holy Trinity (falling this year on June 12). Michaelmas and Hilary terms begin with the feasts days whose names they bear, while Trinity term ends on Trinity Sunday. The English court system begins its year with Michaelmas as well.
Of course, we still note when a battle falls on a significant day, but the significance of most religious holidays has faded, or at least the religious character of those holidays has faded. But the relics of that time remain with us. The British official calendar (used for civil, legal, and business purposes) was organized around the “quarter days” of Annunciation, Midsummer, Michaelmas, and Christmas, with the civil year beginning in April and the academic year beginning in September. That old protocol is the reason the English tax year ends in April and, like English courts, the U.S. Supreme Court term starts in October, right after Michaelmas.
And Furthermore . . .
You have probably already read me complaining about the abuse of the word iconic, as in this recent New York Times profile of Tom Hanks, inevitably described as an “iconic actor.” Iconic is, of course, the opposite of what an actor should be: An actor should be able to inhabit many different roles and show many different faces, as, indeed, Tom Hanks does. An icon can be only one thing.
Beneath the film’s takedown of flower power there is an irony: Gump isn’t really an avatar of patriotism, hard work, and clean living because he isn’t bright enough to make informed choices. His success is flat-out dumb luck. He strikes it rich not because he’s particularly good at shrimping but because, by chance, his is the only shrimp boat to survive a storm. The Apple shares fall into his lap. He isn’t even really a war hero; he is seen willingly traipsing into Viet Cong hidey-holes because he’s too dumb to know they’re dangerous, and when he rescues several men under fire, he isn’t aware of what the stakes are. When he gets shot in the butt, he thinks he’s been bitten by an animal. You can’t display courage under fire if you don’t understand fire in the first place, and Gump, who is mentally on the level of a toddler, shouldn’t even have been allowed to put on the uniform.
. . . The implication is that, whether we’re talking about war heroes or entrepreneurs, luck plays a bigger role in life than we like to acknowledge. The subtext of this seemingly conservative movie is as anti-conservative as an Elizabeth Warren speech: Don’t be too proud; you just got lucky. Life isn’t a meritocracy; it’s a crapshoot. Being pure of heart has nothing to do with Gump’s success unless you think God went out of his way to help him by trashing all of his competitors’ shrimp boats.
National Review’s misanthropic Florence King had mixed feelings about the novel but positively detested the film, seeing it as sentimental hogwash that raised idiocy to a virtue.
In that, as with much else, I’m in the Florence King camp.
But Forrest Gump is not the idiot-pilgrim story for our political era — that honor belongs to Being There.
“Whither tolerance?” asks the Wall Street Journal, which raises the question: “Whither whither?”
Because whither sounds like wither, some people, including some Wall Street Journal editors, have started to use it to suggest that something has declined and withered away, rather than using it to ask toward what end something is bound. Whither does not mean, “Whatever happened to?” It means, “Where is this going?”
Don’t let whither wither.
Also . . .
From the New York Times: “Capturing the Joyful Spirit of a Montana General Store: The state’s oldest continually [sic] open general store serves customers in Fishtail from all walks of life, from ranchers and miners to doctors and C.E.O.s.”
Continually means regularly or periodically, e.g., “I am irritated by the New York Times’s continually misusing common adverbs.” The word that means without interruption is continuous. “The General Wayne Inn was once thought to be the oldest continuously operated restaurant in the country,” or “The following periods will break an employee’s continuous service with their employer and may result in a new period of employment for re-engaged employees.”
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines continual as “happening repeatedly, usually in an annoying or not convenient way.”
It was a long time ago — 1781 — when Thomas Jefferson confessed, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” There is more to that passage:
I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference!
On Sunday, I heard a very good sermon on the subject of Providence, based on the episode in the Book of Samuel in which David has a chance to assassinate Saul, who is trying to murder him, but declines to do so. It was a dilemma for David: Providence had delivered his enemy into his hands, but to raise his hand against God’s anointed king was a sacrilege.
What to do?
What is to be understood, the preacher argued, is that God’s design is not a riddle to be solved or a divine needle in the haystack of daily life and history but a framework in which to conduct our affairs and make decisions — including our political affairs and our political decisions: David’s dilemma was not only a personal moral matter but a profound political challenge as well. What the kingdom required was not a sudden flash of divine intervention — This is the moment! — but an enduring moral superstructure of honesty, decency, goodness, good order, regard for that which is sanctified and that which is of surpassing value. Tim Keller, the famous pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, makes a related observation about the question of wisdom: We are not very often in our daily lives confronted with dramatic moral binaries but instead encounter complicated entanglement: Whom should I marry? What kind of work should I do? What is most important to me as a citizen? And most of these questions cannot easily be answered by means of a Thou shalt or a Thou shalt not. We have to be educated to handle these questions — we cannot simply rely on the moral intuition of untrained people, and even the best-educated are sometimes seduced into mistaking advantageous temporary circumstances for Providence.
I have often written that I do not think future historians will look back on this period as particularly important or interesting, and I still suspect that most of the domestic events between 9/11 and Covid will be judged to be of relatively little long-term consequence. But there also are times when I think that we might with Jefferson detect the “revolution of the wheel of fortune” in our own time, with the January 6 committee telling us one thing and the Dobbs opinion telling us something else. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just” — and not just my country.
Silicon Valley isn’t just rich — it feels rich, too: Central San Francisco may have a late-capitalist fin de siècle pre–Walking Dead feel to it, but the genteel precincts of West Atherton and Menlo Park feel like a different, happy, refined little world. Because Silicon Valley has a kind of self-enforced sumptuary law, only certain kinds of conspicuous consumption are socially acceptable — you’ll see more Lamborghinis parked outside an Eddie V’s in Houston than you’ll see ferrying the suburban aristocracy of Very High Tech America to and from wherever it is they go. As the Guardian reported in 2019, Silicon Valley is on a GDP per capita basis wealthier than such global enclaves of the serious money as Luxembourg, Macau, and Qatar, at least as the World Bank ran the numbers in the pre-Covid economy.
With $128,647 in economic output per person in 2017, Silicon Valley represented the crème de la crème of big money, almost within economic spitting distance of . . . Midland, Texas, which reported a GDP/capita that was substantially higher at $174,749.
But the road from Midland to Menlo Park isn’t as long as you might think.
Things are a little weird in the economy right now. The U.S. economy is currently suffering from a combination of weak (and, recently, negative) economic growth at the same time it is dealing with high inflation — a “stagflation” Americans have not endured since the 1970s. (You know, the 1970s: the age of disco and butterfly collars and such that coincided with the first time Joe Biden got elected to federal office.) Real wages — meaning inflation-adjusted wages — have been in decline. Fuel prices have been skyrocketing, but many of the oil and gas producers in West Texas are sitting on the sidelines. Between January and May, the so-called FAANG stocks — the formerly bulletproof shares of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google — lost more than a third of their value. Because these shares are so widely owned, their performance over the years has made a big positive contribution to the net worth of a whole lot of U.S. households — in 2015, for example, the NASDAQ as a whole would have lost money if not for the performance of five or six blockbuster companies. When they falter, there is a lot of hurt to go around.
With tech shares in free fall, a fair number of venture capitalists (many of whom made their fortunes in tech and still have a lot of exposure to the industry) are dialing back their operations, restricting the flow of capital to start-ups that have been important drivers of U.S. economic growth and innovation. That has important long-term implications: VC-backed companies account for almost two-thirds of U.S. research-and-development spending.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, crude prices surged to a 13-year high. Gasoline is above $4 a gallon in every US state for the first time. Jet fuel in New York spiked to a record last month. Yet shale explorers show no sign of riding to the rescue. Their business model has fundamentally changed, reshaped by pressure to curb growth and divert cash to investors with dividends and buybacks. Inflation is also taking a toll. US oil output this year is expected to expand by less than half the amount it did in 2018, when crude traded around $65. That means more pain for consumers, with JPMorgan Chase & Co. predicting US gasoline at $6.20 a gallon by August.
Americans are really good at a lot of things — a surprising number of things, in fact. But we have an absolutely enormous footprint in four key areas: agriculture, energy, technology, and culture. Americans are awesomely productive farmers, and the United States is the world’s largest exporter of agricultural products, a fact that is going to matter a great deal as Vladimir Putin’s brutal assault on Ukraine disrupts global grain markets. The United States is the world’s leading producer of oil and gas. Most of the world’s most important technology companies are U.S.-based. (Can you think of an important Internet company from the European Union or Japan? Other than Spotify in Sweden, it’s hard to think of any big ones.) Eight of the world’s ten largest media companies are U.S.-based. Practically all of the world’s mobile phones run on Android or iOS. The United States, with its sophisticated capital markets and highly productive work force, is a center of global innovation and productivity.
Any country in the world would be glad to have one of those four gems in its economy. China is the world’s largest food producer, but it is also the world’s largest food importer and the world’s largest oil importer, something that must disturb the sleep on the autarky-minded gerontocrats in Beijing. The Germans are justly proud of their automotive industry, but the regulators in Berlin and Brussels are frustrated by the fact that practically all the Internet firms they wish to exercise control over are U.S.-based. And American culture — and cultural products — are simply everywhere: As Americans traveling abroad will notice, you couldn’t escape American popular culture even if you wanted to. There is no yurt far enough away.
It would be a great understatement to observe that the fundamentals of the U.S. economy — the real, long-term fundamentals — are strong. Arguably, they are stronger in the United States than they are in any other country anywhere in the world.
So, why is our economy so unsatisfactory at the moment?
Go ahead and make your ritual denunciations of Joe Biden. Get it out of your system. All right, then.
President Biden is not great on the economy — in fact, he is pretty bad. But I would like you to try to take a slightly larger view, one that is not simplified to meet your ideological and political needs.
There is some good reason to believe that a big part of what ails the U.S. economy right now is best understood through a Hayekian or “Austrian” lens, an analysis that emphasizes the problem of uncertainty. We have organic uncertainty in the economy, much of it having to do with worries about the persistent supply-chain hangover from Covid-19 and lack of clarity about how and when that will be resolved, and about what a post-resolution world really looks like. Covid also accelerated some organic changes in the economies of the developed world, hastening labor-market changes related to demographics and turbocharging the move to remote work that probably would have happened to some extent on its own but perhaps would not have gone as far or as fast as it has. How that is going to shake out remains unclear.
We also have industry-specific uncertainty caused by politics and policy. The folks in Midland and the nice people in Silicon Valley may not have much in common culturally, but they share some uncertainties when it comes to business. Put in the most stark and extreme way, they are worried that they may be effectively regulated out of business. The fossil-fuel industry has no friends in the Democratic Party and relatively few friends in Europe, and it faces a world in which Wall Street greenwashing threatens their access to capital and financial services; on top of that, many of that industry’s business partners around the world are, because of the nature of the petroleum business, authoritarian states and state-run firms linked to authoritarian governments. The American Left intends to put fossil-fuel companies out of business, and putting them out of business is, in effect, the long-term consensus position in the European Union. How many millions of dollars of your own money would you invest in long-term energy projects, given that uncertainty and hostility?
Technology companies are worried about punitive populist tax measures and aggressive regulation, especially of social-media platforms. Social-media firms such as Facebook and their high-tech cousins such as Google and Amazon have few friends on either side of the aisle in the United States — Republicans see them as West Coast progressive cultural enemies, and Democrats see them as plutocrats in need of plundering for the sake of the common good. The urgent political voice of the moment is something like that of J. D. Vance, purveyor of the most authentic anti-capitalist populism Peter Thiel’s money can buy. (I like you guys, I really do — call me when you sober up.) And, if anything, the bureaucrats in Brussels are at least as much of a danger to U.S. social-media companies as the culture warriors in Washington are.
Democrats are the greater economic offenders at the moment, kicking around very significant changes not only to business taxes but also (probably more significant) to laws and regulations affecting corporate governance. But Republicans are no longer reliable allies when it comes to trade, regulation, corporate governance, and much more. And, in many ways, an uncertain friend is a bigger problem than a certain enemy. Reliable hostility you can plan for — you can put it in your budget. Uncertainty is a heavy tax.
We don’t need to reinvent the American economy — if we were building it from scratch, what we built almost certainly would not be as good as what we have. We have the sort of organic prosperity and capacity that you can’t buy, legislate into existence, or cook up in a committee planning session. But prosperity is not self-sustaining or self-executing. It requires constant investment, innovation, and cultivation. We have remarkable areas of excellence and economic strength, but we also have a political consensus that at times seems hell-bent on killing that magical goose in the false belief that we can get all the golden eggs at once if we do so.
Of course, there is more to the U.S. economy than farming, energy, technology, and culture. But these provide a real foundation for the real-world realization of that “broadly shared prosperity” that the politicians are always talking about — something for everyone. But we need a stable, predictable policy environment — especially after the radical disruptions associated with the Covid epidemic.
We are in a new era. Unfortunately, it is an era in which our economic needs are radically at odds with political incentives. We need consensus, cooperation, stability, modesty, moderation, and prudence, but our politics rewards confrontation, extremism, narrow-minded partisanship, and short-term maximalism. But there is so much in America that works — and works well — that it is difficult for me to believe that it is impossible to build a successful political agenda around our genuine national strengths rather than one that is based on parochial grievances.
I only wonder how much trouble and misery we are going to inflict on ourselves before we figure that out.
Words About Words
A sociolinguistics study that I encountered as an undergraduate had an interesting finding: As you would expect, the more educated an American is, the closer his writing and speech is to Standard American English, with one big exception: Americans with doctorates working in universities tended to adopt an unusual number of British usages in their writing and speech. I don’t remember the precise details of the study and can’t find it, but I suspect that the research was done in the 1980s, the pre-Internet era in which most Americans would not encounter British English in their daily lives. (I feel like I am about to start inviting you damned kids to get off my lawn, but you children of the digital age may not appreciate that it was once a rare and expensive luxury to be able to get a subscription to a foreign newspaper — and unless you lived in New York City or Washington, same-day delivery was basically impossible at any price.) People working in universities would have more access to news periodicals and academic journals written in British English, and would in that way have an opportunity to absorb those usages. More important, as the study authors noted, they would have an incentive: British English is considered high-status among Americans in general (ask Florida Man about that) but especially so among academics.
Prestige and language are tightly related. In one of the foundational studies of sociolinguistics, William Labov studied pronunciation in the very class-conscious linguistic ecosystem of New York City department stores in the early 1960s and found that the more high-end the store, the more standard the pronunciation of the clerks. At the time, the ascending socioeconomic rankings went: Klein’s, Macy’s, Sak’s. Similar studies have produced similar results over the years, and you’ll notice this in your own life if you pay attention: You may think that a waiter is a waiter is a waiter, but the waiters at Applebee’s will speak differently from the waiters at Eleven Madison Park. The person working the cash register at Barnes & Noble will generally speak a more standard English than the one at Walmart.
And once you’ve exhausted the fanciest kind of American English, you end up with British English — you will hear a statistically unusual number of British accents among my National Review colleagues.
The very refined Mid-Atlantic accent and mannerisms of our founder, William F. Buckley Jr., were the subject of speculation and comedy during his lifetime, but you can hear similar speech from contemporaries of his with similar biographies, such as George Plimpton. That is an almost entirely lost species of American speech.
Pretentious Britishisms and Europeanisms should be avoided in most cases, but there is at least one foreign convention that I think we should adopt in American usage: the day/month/year format for writing dates in which the day and the year are numerals and the month is spelled out: 4 July 1776, 22 August 1485, 11 November 1620, 26 December 1991. The advantage here seems to me obvious: The spelled-out month separates the two numbers, making them easier to separate in the mind. And, unless you are writing about some very ancient history, you won’t have years that are less than 31, and in most cases they will be four digits, which makes the whole package easier to digest. I would make exceptions for dates that have become in effect proper nouns, such as September 11.
A reader might stumble over 4/5/1906 or 2/1/1903, but not 5 April 1906 or 1 February 1903.
Also . . .
About “exponential” growth and other kinds of growth, a physicist observes:
There’s another one that people (more) often confuse with exponential growth: geometric. In geometric growth, the variable is set to some fixed exponent (frequently 2 or 3 for area or volume; linear is the special case where the exponent is 1). In such a case, a square with sides twice as long as another will have four times the area, while another that is three times as long will have nine times the area.
There are (of course) other relatively-common kinds of growth that people confuse with exponential growth, such as logarithmic (fast then continually slower but never stopping) and sigmoidal (slow, then fast, then slow, often reaching a maximum). The latter is particularly interesting of late, because it is often a good model for population growth, such as the population of people with a certain communicable disease.
Sigmoid functions are called that because their graphs look like an S that is stretched laterally (or horizontally, if you prefer). One of the things that makes them hard to explain is that there are many different such functions. One of the reasons they’re not explained is that they often look like exponential functions initially, and exponential growth is exciting, or frightening. Indeed, a common sigmoid function is an exponential function divided by the same function plus a constant (such as 1); for small values of the exponent, the constant dominated on the bottom (the denominator), so the function looks like the exponential function, but for large values of the exponent the constant is less and less important, and the function goes toward one.
That isn’t quite right. That which is weekly is recurrent, happening once a week over an indefinite period of time: “Newsweek was a highly regarded weekly magazine before it became a steaming heap of hot garbage”; “They were weekly church-goers”; “I made my weekly telephone call to my mother.”
The usual market idiom for a decline over the course of a week is “loss on the week.” From the Wall Street Journal: “With a loss on the week of 255 points, or 6%, the index halted a string of weekly gains that had done a lot to restore confidence in the technology sector.”
We had better hope that this isn’t a regularly recurring weekly loss!
And Furthermore . . .
A publication brought out at regular periods is a periodical, as you all know, and the interval of its publication is its periodicity — fortnightly, for National Review, daily for the New York Times, etc.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
Home and Away
When Second Amendment advocates complain that the government does not enforce the gun laws that already are on the books, that often is received as empty rhetoric. But the actual facts of the case will astound and appall you.
Consider the perennially misgoverned city of Philadelphia. Today, a criminal facing a gun charge there is twice as likely to have his case dismissed as he was just six years ago. According to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, only 30 percent of gun cases were dismissed or withdrawn in 2016 — and by 2021, that figure had doubled, to 60 percent. I should emphasize here that these are gun crimes specifically, not petty marijuana-possession cases or shoplifting. In 2016, 61 percent of the gun-crime cases ended either in a guilty plea or in a conviction in court, but by 2021 that figure had declined to 36 percent — which is to say, if you are among the unlucky few criminals who actually gets charged with a gun crime in Philadelphia, you still have a two-out-of-three chance of walking on the charge today, while six short years ago the most likely outcome was a conviction.
Unfortunately, there are some subjects — and some species of stupidity — that do not change from year to year. Here is what I was thinking about on the first Tuesday in June 2021.
Forgive my plucking a comment from the obscurity of Twitter to make an example of, but it is a useful one. In an exchange about health-care policy, a professor of political science at a major American university asked a familiar question: Why is it that some Americans apparently believe that the United States is incapable of managing a single-payer health-care system like France’s?
You’ll see the problem there.
The fact is that nobody actually knows whether France or the United States is capable of managing a single-payer health-care system, because neither country has single-payer health care. Not many countries do.
France’s health-care system is different from the U.S. system in important ways, but it is in other ways quite similar: It is based on insurance. As in the Swiss system and the original version of the Affordable Care Act regime, that insurance is compulsory. Patients pay for their health care and then are reimbursed — but not for the full amount — by their insurers. The French generally have to consult with a general practitioner before being referred to a specialist, pay lab fees, etc. About a quarter of the hospitals are for-profit and the rest are either private nonprofits or public. What the French do not have — and what almost none of the countries of Western Europe and few countries around the world have — is single-payer, a public-monopoly model of health care found in the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, the United Arab Emirates, and a few other countries.
I wanted to note something you might already know about [Robert] Baden-Powell and the origins of Scouting. B-P used to say that he conceived Scouting in observing the African rituals of manhood that involved the initiate setting out into the wild alone with a spear to learn courage, resilience, and self-sufficiency. He dreamed of constructing a cult (!) that would save the phthisic and degenerate youth of the modern cities (both upper class and working class) by guiding them into the great wild to learn character and manhood. Very much rhymes with Teddy Roosevelt’s philosophy — and he was a great supporter of Scouting in America.
I will be on a partial break for a few weeks starting in mid-June, so you may see a little less of my work in National Review. Please know that this is short-term and in response to happy developments, and that the Tuesday will soldier on as scheduled. I suppose this is as good a time as any to confess something I suspect many of you have already guessed: I chose the name “The Tuesday” in order to keep myself on schedule.
Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about thus and such. To subscribe to the Tuesday, follow this link.
The 2 Percent Solution
On Sunday, I answered as briefly as I could – which in many cases was not very briefly at all – some common questions about the gun-control debate. I have a few even-less-brief observations for Tuesday, but I think you will find them useful.
I begin with what seems to be a mystifying paradox at the center of our gun-control efforts: We only want to enforce the law on the law-abiding, while we ignore the law-breakers almost entirely in our gun-control debate.
Criminals mostly don’t get their guns at gun stores — because they mostly can’t.
In contrast to those modest figures of 2 percent or 13 percent, the great majority of murders committed in the United States — upwards of 80 percent — are committed by people with prior arrest records, often by people with prior convictions for violent crimes or prior weapons offenses — and almost none of our gun-control proposals is targeted at this group.
If you have not bought a gun from a gun dealer, then you might not appreciate just exactly how law-abiding and how i-dotting and t-crossing you have to be to make the purchase: Not only are you excluded for a felony conviction, you also are excluded for misdemeanor convictions involving domestic violence or any other misdemeanor for which you could have been sentenced to more than one year in jail, irrespective of the sentence you actually received; you are excluded if you are a “fugitive from justice,” meaning someone with an active arrest warrant who has left the state to avoid arrest; you are excluded if you have been dishonorably discharged from the military; you are excluded if you are a drug addict or a user of illegal drugs; you are excluded if you are an illegal alien or an alien legally present on a nonimmigrant visa; you are excluded if you have been judged mentally deficient by a court of law or committed to a mental institution; you are excluded if you are subject to a restraining order; you are excluded from purchasing a handgun if you are not a resident of the state in which the purchase is being made; you are excluded if you are buying a gun for anyone other than yourself; you are excluded if the information on your government-issued identification does not match current records and the information on your application, a provision that is enforced with such exactitude that an application may be rejected if it says “111 Main St.” instead of “111 Main Street.”
Democrats who complain that it easier to buy a gun than it is to vote are lying for partisan political purposes and should be dismissed with contempt.
That being said, there are some deficiencies in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) that should be part of the conversation. One is that NICS depends on a variety of agencies for reporting, and these agencies are not always reliable. For example, the shooter in the Sutherland Springs church attack should have been excluded from buying firearms, but the U.S. Air Force neglected to report his criminal history to the FBI, which manages NICS. (A judge has held the Air Force partially responsible for the deaths in that case.) Other problems: Non-federal fugitives are not often reported as such, and in the majority of cases the state with the warrant does not know whether the fugitive has left the state; some localities are slow or negligent in reporting restraining orders or misdemeanor convictions, and some apparently don’t even know what needs to be reported; mental-health reporting has long been slow and desultory — the number of mental-health records in the NICS database jumped from 234,628 in 2005 to 3.8 million in 2014 not because of some sudden spike in mental illness in the United States but because the feds made a priority out of it and put money into helping states and municipalities meet their reporting obligations; the United States does a notoriously poor job of tracking illegal aliens and enforcing immigration law; the process basically relies on self-reporting for illegal drug use.
That lattermost issue is dramatically illustrated by the case of Hunter Biden, who almost certainly violated federal law by lying about his longstanding drug problems when purchasing a handgun in 2018, but was never charged — and, let’s be frank, never will be charged and knew he was never going to be charged, even if caught — under the very law his father boasts of having “shepherded through Congress.”
These are real shortcomings in the system. But, even with that being the case, I should reiterate here that the data very strongly suggest that people who buy firearms from firearms dealers very rarely commit crimes of any kind with those firearms — less than 2 percent of the prisoners in the federal system and about 13 percent of those in the state systems had a firearm obtained from a retail source when they committed their crimes. (And even those figures may overstate the prevalence of retail-sourced firearms in that they probably include some straw purchases and firearms stolen from retailers.) Given the very weak statistical relationship between buying a gun from a gun dealer and committing a crime with that gun, why is there so much focus on federally licensed firearms dealers and the people who do business with them?
The answer is that this conversation has almost nothing to do with violent crime, and almost nothing to do with policies aimed at reducing violent crime.
The gun-control debate is first and foremost a culture-war issue for Democrats. There is a great deal of violent crime in the United States, and that crime is concentrated in big cities over which Democrats enjoy an effective monopoly of political power. The people who commit most of the murders in the United States — and the people who most often die in those murders — check a lot of Democratic-voter demographic boxes: They are very disproportionately low-income African Americans in urban areas. Democrats are desperate to put a more Republican-looking face on the violent-crime problem, preferably one that is older, white, middle-aged, rural, southern, and Evangelical. That is the reason for the focus on the National Rifle Association in particular and on gun dealers and “gun culture” in general. As is so often the case in our contemporary politics, what we are talking about matters mostly because it is a way of not talking aboutsomething else.
I am not particularly an admirer of the National Rifle Association. The NRA once was a very effective — and notably bipartisan — single-issue advocacy organization, focused on the legal rights and interests of U.S. gun owners. Contrary to the myth that has grown up around it, the NRA has never been powerful because it throws around a great deal of money — which it doesn’t do: In the 2020 cycle, the NRA was not among the top 1,000 political donors or among the top 250 in lobbying outlays. It is true that the NRA is currently in a weakened condition after a series of self-inflicted wounds, but even back in 2012 it was No. 301 among campaign contributors and only No. 181 on lobbying outlays. The NRA’s strength has never been its pocketbook — it has always been the fact that it represents millions and millions of American gun owners who prioritize Second Amendment issues when they go to the polls. The NRA’s political clout has always been of the most genuine kind — the kind you cannot purchase. If you think clout like that can be bought, ask Mike Bloomberg about his efforts on the gun-control front.
The NRA went wrong when it made itself into a subsidiary of the Republican Party and allowed itself to be taken over by people who wanted to be Fox News pundits — a textbook example of Yuval Levin’s observation about self-interested people who use institutions as platforms. (I do not and never have given a fig about Wayne LaPierre’s million-dollar salary and his natty Zegna suits — frankly, I am surprised that he isn’t paid more: Very effective nonprofit executives do pretty well.) The NRA was better off — and Americans’ gun rights were more secure — when the group still had a few high-ranking Democrats on its side, and when its employees were not famous. You probably can’t name one employee of Squire Patton Boggs, a Washington lobbying powerhouse, and that suits the firm and its clients just fine. It is true that the NRA’s position as culture-war lightning rod was not entirely a matter of the organization’s own choosing, but it has leaned into the role more than it had to.
If this were a matter of public policy, the thousands of people who were standing outside the convention center in Houston to shout obscenities at the NRA would be standing outside the office of the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Chicago and raising absolute hell about the failure — about the refusal – of the federal government and most big-city DAs to prosecute straw-buyer cases. If this were about policy, Joe Biden would be in New York with Kathy Hochul in a headlock demanding to know why career criminals arrested on murder charges are being released — without bail! — into the streets of our largest city. Or, short of that, President Biden could take a brief walk down the streetto the ATF headquarters and find out why the agency won’t even bother to go around and pick up guns in sales that it knows were wrongly approved. But none of that happens.
The reason none of that happens is that this is not about crime — it is about culture war and cultural enemies.
Don’t take my word for it: Ask Charles Blow of the New York Times, who demands that “Gun Safety Must Be Everything That Republicans Fear,” as the headline puts it — not what is effective, not what is reasonable or prudent, but whatever it is that Republicans don’t want. Blow is unusual only in that he is relatively open about the fact that this is a culture issue for him: “Gun culture,” he writes, “is a canard and a corruption.”
(Set aside, for the moment, that a marquee columnist for the New York Times apparently does not know what the word “canard” means.)
The Democratic Party and the progressive movement more generally are dominated culturally and financially by college-educated, affluent, white metropolitan professionals, mostly living in those two-thirds of U.S. households in which there is no firearm present. They present themselves as the champions of poor, black, urban communities about which they know almost nothing, and understand themselves as the enemies of lower-income, aging, white, rural communities — the stereotypical NASCAR crowd — about which they also know almost nothing. Never mind that much of the increase in gun ownership in recent years has been driven by women, African Americans, and recreational shooters in urban areas — the eggbound snake-handling hayseeds and would-be militiamen of Georgia and Alabama, whose cultural prominence is almost exclusively a matter of the progressive imagination, simply must be the face of gun ownership, at least for the purposes of culture war. Never mind that most of the violent crime involving guns in this country is carried out in zip codes where the voters elect Democrats almost exclusively, and never mind that the reason we do not act on those “common sense” gun-control measures on which almost all of us notionally agree — such as prosecuting straw-buying and other everyday weapons offenses — is the fact that doing this would irritate important Democratic constituencies in the big cities and among unionized government workers.
Even if we read the data in the way that is most generous to the gun-control cause, fewer than one in five criminals uses a gun acquired from a gun dealer, while more than four out of five murderers have prior arrest records. If we go by the DOJ findings, the share of criminals who use guns from gun dealers is more like 2 percent. And yet almost all of the new proposals from Democrats are new regulations and restrictions on firearms dealers, while almost none is focused on the relatively small body of prior offenders who carry out most murder and other violent crime. The progressives are protesting the NRA in Houston and not in front of city hall in Philadelphia or St. Louis.
Among the few proposals that are targeted at someone other than licensed gun dealers and their customers is the idea of so-called universal background checks, also known as “closing the gun-show loophole.”
Like I said, this isn’t about crime — it is about Kulturkampf.
A Few More Thoughts about This . . .
After nearly 3,000 Americans died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, nobody — nobody sane, anyway — said: “But the real killer is heart disease!” Terrorist attacks are consequential not only because of the numbers killed but also because they change the nature of public life — that is, after all, what they are intended to do. Likewise, the number of Americans who die in massacres such as the ones recently carried out in Buffalo and Uvalde represents a tiny share of the total number of Americans who die in homicides, most of those deaths being the result of ordinary, quotidian crime. An American public-school student is considerably more likely to die in a school-bus accident than in a mass shooting. But those homicidal spectaculars change the nature of school life, and of public life in general.
It is for this reason that they deserve our attention, not because they tell us anything about the lethality of any particular class of firearms or the prudence of changing the regulation of such firearms. The killer in Uvalde was armed with a semiautomatic 5.56mm rifle, not exactly a “weapon of war” (that phrase itself presents a complicated question; see below) but a very effective firearm, and, not coincidentally, the most common rifle sold in the United States. But the killer was barricaded in a room full of fourth-graders for an hour — he could have been armed with a revolver, a kitchen knife, or a brick and achieved the same results. Most of the victims at Sandy Hook were six or seven years old — it is difficult to imagine how magazine-size restrictions would make much of a difference in such a situation. The worst school massacre in American history was carried out nearly a century ago by a killer who used bombs rather than firearms. These kinds of crimes are not going to be prevented by the sorts of measures being put forward.
But surely it is the case that we could, if we were serious about this — which, as I argue above, we really aren’t — walk and chew gum at the same time, using straightforward law-enforcement methods to reduce the numbers of ordinary criminal murders while also working on new data-driven techniques to try to identify mass killers and prevent their crimes before they happen, while also taking commonsense measures to improve security at schools and in other public places.
One thing we are going to have to do is decide whether we still think 18-year-olds are adults. Some gun-control advocates would like to see all firearms sales restricted to those who are at least 21 years of age. This is not an isolated idea: Increasingly, our colleges are organized around the belief that students as old as 22 years of age are, in effect, children who require “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” and other measures by which school staff members act in loco parentis. In certain situations, a person can be charged with a felony sexual crime for having consensual sexual relations with an 18-year-old or a 20-year-old, even in places where the formal age of sexual consent is less than 18 years of age. And, of course, we generally forbid alcohol sales to legal adults younger than 21 years of age.
I am not what Michael Oakeshott would have called a rationalist, in that I am perfectly comfortable with some measure of organic inconsistency in the law, but I do not think that it probably is tenable in the long run to have an explicitly guaranteed constitutional right denied to people who are old enough to vote. Nor do I think that it is tenable to have people who otherwise enjoy the full rights of adulthood treated as though they were children in the context of higher education. What this means — although the notion is practically taboo — is that it is time to reconsider not the Second Amendment but the 26th Amendment, which forces the states to enfranchise 18-year-olds. If we are going to proceed as though adulthood starts at 21, then we need to raise the voting age to 21, too — because we don’t give children the vote.
Of course, we’ll have to do something about all those child soldiers in our military, with the median age of new Marines hovering around 19.
‘Weapons of War’
As I have pointed out many times, the 5.56mm semiautomatic rifles that progressives like to call “weapons of war” are not really that, inasmuch as they are not generally issued to troops in the United States or elsewhere. But do you know what is a weapon of war? Granddad’s deer rifle. The ubiquitous Remington 700 bolt-action rifle has long been a favorite of hunters, and it also is the go-to sniper rifle for military services around the world. Earlier American wars were fought with bolt-action .30-06 rifles functionally identical to what most American hunters used for generations.
Gun-control activists insist that AR-style rifles are not hunting rifles. A typical tirade found on the Internet: “An AR-15 is not a hunting rifle. Do you really need a high-powered rifle round and high-capacity magazine to take down Bambi? Last time I checked, Bambi wasn’t wearing a bullet proof vest or hiding behind cement barriers.” That isn’t Joe Biden, but it could be.
This is, of course, wrong on every count: The rifles in question not only are hunting rifles; they are today the most common hunting rifle in the United States. But they are not rifles that typically fire a “high-powered” round — in fact, the standard 5.56mm round has long been considered insufficiently powerful for humane deer hunting and has been prohibited at various times in various places for that purpose for that reason. Hog-hunting is one of the most popular kinds of pursuit in the United States, and many outfitters will not allow a hunter to use a 5.56mm rifle for hogs — because it is not powerful enough. The idea of shooting through concrete (Not cement! See below) barriers and body armor with that round is an uncertain proposal at best. You’d be better off with a traditional big-game hunting rifle, which is four or five times as powerful as the “higher-powered” 5.56mm. But, in any case, most of the popular hunter cartridges either began as military rounds (such as the .30-06) or still are military rounds (such as the .308 Winchester). As a practical matter, you aren’t going to find a rifle that is good for killing elk that isn’t also good for killing people.
And that fact matters . . . almost not at all, since rifles are almost never used in murders in the United States, accounting for only 2.5 percent of homicides. What murders in 2022 have in common with murders in 1922 is that the gun most commonly used in a murder is the most common handgun. Once upon a time, it was the Colt Single-Action Army revolver, and then it was the .38 Special, and now it is the 9mm pistol. In 20 years, it may be something else — but the shooters probably will be the same people, i.e., habitual criminals with prior records.
And gun-control advocates will still be focused on the 2 percent of criminals who buy guns from gun dealers, or possibly the 0.8 percent who get them from gun shows.
Words About Words
In a recent New York Times article about quantum computers, Cade Metz writes:
This means that two qubits can hold four values at once, three qubits can hold eight, four can hold 16 and so on. As the number of qubits grows, a quantum computer becomes exponentially more powerful.
Metz should get some kind of medal for being the only person writing for a major American newspaper who can use the word exponentially correctly.
That which increases exponentially is that which increases either in a way that is expressed by an exponent or in a way in which the rate of absolute growth increases as the series proceeds. This is in contrast to linear growth.
For example, a city that is experiencing linear growth and which grows from 100,000 to 200,000 in ten years would grow to 300,000 ten years after that and to 400,000 in the next ten years; a city experiencing exponential growth that grows from 100,000 to 200,000 in ten years would grow to 400,000 ten years after that and to 800,000 in the next ten years — the city experiencing linear growth adds 100,000 residents every ten years, while the city experiencing exponential growth doubles (in this case) every ten years. Metz’s quantum-computer example illustrates a case in which the number of values that can be held at once doubles with every qubit added.
A series that is increasing exponentially in the most literal sense would look like (for example) 2; 4; 16; 256; 65,536; 4,294,967,296; etc., in that case the exponent being 2 and each figure being the square of the previous figure. The most literal sense of exponential is rarely used in nontechnical writing.
An exponent is, in the words of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “a symbol written above and to the right of a mathematical expression to indicate the operation of raising to a power.” The more common and casual exponent, meaning one who expounds, seems to have evolved independently from the mathematical term, along with its cousin, proponent.
The hard grey stuff a sidewalk is made out of is not cement — it is concrete. Cement is an ingredient in concrete, as well as in mortar and some stuccos. The most common kind of cement is Portland cement, which is made mostly from powdered limestone and gypsum. The “Portland” in the name refers not to the beleaguered and misgoverned city in Oregon but to Portland stone, which comes from the Isle of Portland in Dorset, England.
The Isle of Portland is what is known as a tied island, meaning an island connected to the shore by a narrow spit of land that forms naturally because of the way the island affects wave patterns and, hence, how sediment is deposited. The word for such a spit of land is tombolo, from an Italian word for cushion.
If you haven’t had enough gun stuff, check out this brief report from NYPD. In 2021, the department made 4,499 gun arrests, resulting in . . . one conviction at trial. There were 698 plea deals and 983 dismissals.
If You’ve Read This Far
No recommendations or closing thought this week. Just Pancake.
Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about all sorts of crazy stuff and available only to NRPlus members. Thank you again to all of you who have signed up in the past several weeks — I appreciate it tremendously.
That will be mostly familiar stuff to scholars of sexual history and men who have been to prison — for most of human existence, until about three days ago, attitudes toward male homosexuality were in most times and most places very strongly dependent upon whether a man took what we used to decorously call the “active” or the “passive” role in the relationship. Naïve gay-rights advocates sometimes point to ancient republican Rome as an example of a society with a tolerant attitude toward homosexuality, but Latin doesn’t even have a word for homosexual in the modern sense of that word, and same-sex relationships between men in Rome were mainly the sort of thing we very much would not tolerate in our time: pederastic exploitation by adult men of youths who were under their control (often as slaves) or who were in social positions that made them easy to exploit. To do with a Roman citizen what could be done with a slave or a child prostitute was, of course, forbidden, and if it had ever occurred to any ancient Roman to pursue something like a modern homosexual relationship — a life partnership of men generally of roughly comparable age and social status, possibly leading to marriage or something like it — the result would probably have been execution. In the case of Roman soldiers, the prescribed punishment for willingly submitting to homosexual penetration was being beaten to death — to be sexually used in such a way was, in the Roman mind, a symbol of military defeat, and, hence, by the usual operation of magical thinking in the ancient world, homosexual relations among soldiers were thought to cause battlefield losses.
If that sounds like irrelevant ancient history to you, have a look at the rifle that pathetic little misfit used in the Buffalo massacre.
The rifle in question was covered with graffiti of an obviously racial character: the names of racist mass murderers associated with massacres in Norway and South Carolina, “Here’s your reparations!”, and other things of that nature, with indifferent spelling. And some of the graffiti had a sexual nature as well as a racial one, including “Buck Status: Broken,” and “BLM Mogged.”
Those of you who are not sad-sack 4chan racial obsessives may be mystified by these. The ADL explains that “buck breaking” refers to the “use of brutal sexual violence by slave owners as punishment against enslaved Black men,” but that isn’t quite right, or quite the whole thing. The slogan refers much more specifically to a much-ridiculed documentary film called Buck Breaking, which dwells upon the claim — undocumented and preposterous — that American slaveowners punished unruly male slaves by publicly raping them, typically in front of other slaves, including their wives and children when these were available. Social and legal sanctions on homosexuality were very strong in the antebellum South, and the notion that plantation overseers would engage in public homosexual acts is, to say the least, extraordinarily unlikely. No documentary evidence of this exists. Where sexualized violence was used to punish male slaves, it was typically castration.
(The habitual rape and sexual exploitation of female slaves is well-documented.)
“Buck breaking” is another example of the phenomenon typified by the “Willie Lynch” letter, an obvious hoax purporting to be an antique guide to slave management that explains modern black social problems. The Willie Lynch letter is as fake as can be (the language is obviously from the second half of the 20th century, and there is no historian who believes that it is anything other than a clumsy fabrication), but it is regularly presented as a genuine historical document and, when confronted with evidence of its obviously fictitious nature, those who traffic in the myth of Willie Lynch inevitably turn to the “fake but accurate” approach, insisting that it represents a larger historical truth. In a similar way, Buck Breaking purports to connect the (fictitious) practice of forcibly and publicly sodomizing male slaves to the modern-day emasculation of black men, but the prurient documentary is derided as, essentially, a soft-core-porn fetish film. The Very Online racists who have taken up “buck breaking” as a threat and a term of abuse have, even if they do not quite understand what they are doing, taken on the role of DMX — they are fantasizing about cutting their enemies down to size by engaging in homosexual acts with them. Like DMX, they have arrived at the very strange point where homophobia meets homoeroticism.
In fact, much of the argot of the racist underground (and the adjacent political Right) is based on genres of homosexual pornography, not only “buck breaking” but also the remarkably fetishistic attachment to the word “cuck,” which features in certain homosexually oriented humiliation porn. Which side of the great cuck divide the Right wishes to be on is not always entirely clear: Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow “Jack Murphy” (real name John Goldman) is an amateur pornographer who rejoices in, as Rod Dreher puts it, the “pleasures of being a literal cuckold” by “farming his girlfriend out to other men for sex.” When he is not publicly impaling himself on sex toys, Goldman’s specialization is the topic of masculinity, and, in a very similar way, Claremont’s American Mind journal is packed with the predictable kind of sexual anxiety that is by necessity associated with that version of masculinity, fretting about “soy boys” and “simps” and the like. This is the “traditional” model of masculinity that finds authentic manliness in only a handful of manly archetypes: cops, soldiers, blue-collar workers, motorcycle enthusiasts, etc.
Which is to say, it is only one feathered headdress short of the Village People.
The link between anxiety about masculinity and homoeroticism — and outright homosexual pornography — is very old and its origins very obvious. Until very, very recently, to be a homosexual man — especially a man on what DMX and the ancient Romans and an American prison inmate would think of as the degrading side of a homosexual encounter — was to be reduced to the social status of a woman. (Set aside, for the moment, Camille Paglia’s very persuasive argument that the sexual behavior of gay men in the bathhouse culture of the 1970s and 1980s was the precise opposite of feminized — it was the detached, transactional promiscuity of the male libido liberated from any need to compromise with the priorities and sensibilities of women.) From the historical Western point of view, gay men were, in effect, not men at all. Predictably, one response to this attack on the masculinity of gay men was the emergence of a gay iconography of hypermasculine archetypes: The Village People presented the consumer-friendly model of this (which gay men in that era must have found positively hilarious, because they knew what the YMCA was famous for), but the origins of that aesthetic are in older gay erotica and pornography, most famously in the works of Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen), whose drawings of muscled-up bikers, sailors, cops, and cowboys popularized and in some ways created a self-contained library of masculinity — mostly of a fun-loving libertine nature, but also containing a fair amount of darker stuff, including a scene that would have been very much at home in Buck Breaking if not for the fact that all the figures depicted are white.
(There is something to be inferred about national self-conceptions of masculinity in the fact that Touko Laaksonen did not visit the United States until he was almost 60, but his pictures were widely understood to be pictures of Americans. Europeans long regarded Americans as hypermasculine, going back at least to Alexis de Toqueville’s observations of the “women of America, who often exhibit a masculine strength of understanding and a manly energy.” The European impression of exaggerated American masculinity is in many ways parallel to white Americans’ traditional impression of exaggerated black masculinity — something regarded with a mix of admiration and fear.)
It should be no surprise that those Tom of Finland gay archetypes approximate the idealized cartoon masculinity of the online racists and their political cousins in right-wing institutions such as the Claremont Institute: In our time, it is not gay men in America who feel emasculated but white men in America. Like gay men of an earlier generation, the Buffalo shooter and his 4chan associates dream of taking on hypermasculine roles, even if that sense of hypermasculinity leads them into the realm of homosexual fantasy. Beyond “buck breaking,” the Buffalo shooter fantasized in public about “mogging” Black Lives Matter, which is to say, humiliating them with a display of intimidating physical stature. You will not be surprised to learn that the word “mogged” crops up most often at one of the traditional intersections between exaggerated notions of traditional masculinity and a gay subculture: bodybuilding. That Claremont fellow is an amateur bodybuilder when he is not subjecting himself to ritualized sexual humiliation.
It is here that our old friend Tucker Carlson enters the story.
The most interesting overlap between the obsessions of Tucker Carlson and the Buffalo shooter is not, as our self-serving Democratic friends insist, “replacement” rhetoric — it is masculine anxiety. Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson comes from the West Coast version of the old New England and Mid-Atlantic WASP elite, a product of the La Jolla Country Day School and boarding schools in Switzerland and New England. He doesn’t have any more experience with ranch labor, factory workers, or the Hells Angels than Tom of Finland had, but his valorization of blue-collar and rural life is marked by the same kind of longing after masculine archetypes, and his approach to the question of masculinity could not be more literally reductive — his interest, as described in his recent documentary, The End of Men, is commanded in no small part by the state of the American testicle. Carlson represents the latest in a very long line of insulated aristocrats gripped by a panic about the state of masculinity in their time: Teddy Roosevelt was another, with his advocacy of the “strenuous life,” and the father of Scouting, a movement intended in part to address certain perceived deficiencies in late-Victorian masculinity, was Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell, OM, GCMG, GCVO, KCB, KStJ, DL. Xi Jinping, the son of a high-ranking Communist Party official who did not find physical labor much to his liking when he was forcibly rusticated by Mao Zedong, has banned depictions of “sissy men” from Chinese media. Vladimir Putin’s regime is strangely interested in the question of gay Russians — since we have it on the good word of senior Russian officials that there are no homosexuals in their jurisdictions.
Where the fear of emasculation meets “replacement theory” is on the hard ground of social-status competition. What was that tiki-torch dork parade in Charlottesville all about? As the man behind one of the country’s premier neo-Nazi websites promised those thinking about attending that rally, the result would be not the beginning of a racial holy war or the achievement of political power or anything like that: “Random girls will want to have sex with you,” he declared. As it turns out, that doesn’t seem to be how things went down. But the Nazis say more than they perhaps intend. Of course the Buffalo shooter dreamt of inflicting sexual humiliation on those of his fellow countrymen he regards as his enemies — from a certain warped point of view, that is only reciprocal justice. You will not find very many happily married men among the ranks of the mass shooters and their 4chan fan clubs, or among the armband-and-jackboots set. It is not usually sexual satisfaction and social success that leads a man to testicle tanning. And, as even most casual observers know, socioeconomic success and marital success are linked: There is almost no difference between the overall workforce participation rate for black Americans and white Americans, with both groups typically hovering in the low-60-percent rage; married black men are significantly more likely to be in the workforce than are single white men; even more telling, the workforce participation rate for married fathers is well above 90 percent.
The acquisition of wealth is not a zero-sum game — the things we do to create wealth for ourselves often create wealth for other people as well, and because wealth is created, your gain is not necessarily someone else’s loss. The pursuit of status, in contrast, is a zero-sum game, because status is by its nature an exclusively relative criterion. The identity of sexual competition with status competition and the zero-sum nature of status games explains the seeming paradox at the heart of globalization: In an increasingly free and prosperous world, the very people who enjoy the most freedom and prosperity — white men in the Anglosphere and Western Europe — are among the most dissatisfied. (Similar phenomena hold elsewhere in the world: In India, Narendra Modi’s angry populism is targeted not at poor people belonging to marginalized minority groups but at high-status Hindus.) That dissatisfaction is distributed across a wide spectrum: Sometimes, it means grumbling along with Tucker Carlson, and sometimes, it means the sort of political radicalization that resulted in the Buffalo massacre. It is not necessary to indulge in some kind of vulgar and reductive pseudo-Freudianism that reduces every question to sex, sexual frustration, and sexual ambition to appreciate this aspect of our public life.
But it is interesting — and I don’t think accidental — that our modern right-wing nationalists and 20th-century gay pornographers have about the same idea of what a real man looks like.
Words About Words
The word cult, which I am required to use often because of the things I write about, is misunderstood. In common 21st-century American English, cult is almost exclusively a pejorative term referring to a religious or pseudo-religious organization that exercises strong and exploitative control over the lives of its members. That is a legitimate use of the word, but it grows out of the other, older senses of that word.
I am not entirely sure who was the first to observe: “Cult is the first word in culture.” If you search on the Internet, all you will get are things that I have written, so I am tempted to claim it for my own. (I have a memory of taking it from T. S. Eliot, but I can’t find exactly those words in any of his works. At least, I couldn’t on the morning I wrote this.) Cult is also the first word in cultivation, and that seems to me appropriate: The Latin root cultus means worship or reverence, but it also means labor; as such, it comprehends the two main senses of the word cultivation: learning and farming. The cultivated mind, like cultivated land, has been improved and made ready to be fruitful.
I have observed many times (possibly too many) that modern-day political partisans have re-created ancient beliefs about divine kings and, specifically, about the effect of the royal character on national prosperity; in this context, I wrote: “If I am going to join a Levantine wine cult, I choose Christianity.” The word cult there bothers many readers. But Christians have for many generations used the word cult to refer to ourselves and our devotions — for those who are familiar with the terminology, to speak of “the cult of Saint Anne” is not to suggest heresy or idolatry or anything untoward, only a particular kind of admiration for a particular saint and a devotion to that saint’s example. Cult meaning style of worship or particular religious form is pretty common in English. Back to Eliot, who writes in his Notes toward the Definition of Culture:
In the next three chapters I discuss what seem to me to be three important conditions for culture. The first of these is organic (not merely planned, but growing) structure, such as will foster the hereditary transmission of culture within a culture: and this requires the persistence of social classes. The second is the necessity that a culture should be analysable, geographically, into local cultures: this raises the problem of ‘regionalism’. The third is the balance of unity and diversity in religion—that is, universality of doctrine with particularity of cult and devotion.
Elsewhere in the same essay:
The chief cultural differences in England have, in the past, been those between Anglicanism and the more important Protestant sects; and even these differences are far from clearly defined: first, because the Church of England itself has comprehended wider variations of belief and cult than a foreign observer would believe it possible for one institution to contain without bursting; and second, because of the number and variety of the sects separated from it.
It may only be my ear, but sect also seems to be acquiring a disreputable connotation — a suggestion of fanaticism or extremism.
I would like to rescue the word cult from disreputability and to emphasize its connections to culture and cultivation — a culture contains what a civilization believes about the most important things, and cultivation is how one draws close to those beliefs and learns to understand them. (Which is not the same thing as accepting them.) At the same time, I hope it continues to sting when I describe certain political enthusiasts as being cultish or cult members. “I’m not saying I like everything about Mammon — in fact, I have some real reservations about Mammon, and I know Mammon is far from perfect! — but Moloch is the worst, and this is a binary choice: If you aren’t pro-Mammon, then you are operatively pro-Moloch. Do you really want to be pro-Moloch and have that on your conscience?”
A reader who is not Stannis Baratheon wants a ruling on less/fewer, citing this sentence from the Wall Street Journal: “Last month, Nancy Green, the chain’s president and chief executive, stepped down after less than two years running the brand.” My correspondent asks:
Maybe I have the rule wrong, but years feels like a count noun, which would entitle it to fewer. But, I’m not 100 percent if that rule applies to time in the same way it applies to say, apples.
Years certainly are countable, but, in this case, the writer is talking about a quantity of time on the job that is not necessarily enumerated in discrete years. Just because we can count them doesn’t mean we are counting them in a given usage. One year and four months is less time than two years, and one year and eleven months also is less time than two years. We are keeping track of time, but not counting years as such. But six semesters at college are two fewer than the eight required for graduation.
Here is another example: “The ski resort is still unprofitable after its fifth ski season, while others have achieved profitability in fewer seasons than that.” Here season is the necessary and relevant unit, and not only is it countable, it is being counted. So, you might write, “The program is open to boys less than ten years old” but, “He has fewer years on the job than is required” in a context in which years might be counted for the purpose of determining seniority or eligibility for a promotion. Where the years themselves are not necessarily counted, you might write: “He has less time on the job than she does” or, “He has less time on the job than the 20 years required for retirement” or, “He has fewer years on the job than the 20 required for retirement.”
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
Home and Away
You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here.
The J. Paul Getty Trust is the world’s richest art institution, rejoicing in a $7.7 billion endowment thanks to the philanthropy of notoriously flinty arch-capitalist Jean Paul Getty Sr., who was the wealthiest American in the late 1950s. The fruit of Getty’s fortune is being used, among other purposes, for the rescue of a hideous monument to socialism in Bulgaria. It is a shame that that other great industrialist Alfred Nobel is not around to donate the dynamite to knock the thing down, as should be done. As the New York Times reports, the “Sistine Chapel of Socialism” may be repurposed as a music venue or an event center. It currently is a rotting ruin, which makes it an entirely appropriate monument to socialism.
Lenin is supposed to have quipped that capitalists would sell the rope with which they would be hanged, but that is not what has come to pass. Capitalists may, however, sell the former subjects of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics the sound system and liquor to make a nightclub out of that old wreck on a remote Bulgarian hillside.
I advise them to ask for cash up front.
It is not a new book, but I recommend Paul Lettow’s Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. It is an interesting book and an excellent read. We have forgotten, or are forgetting, about Reagan’s peacemaking legacy, and his at times genuinely radical proposals for achieving peace. And, because we do not have peace, one cannot help but appreciate that our current confrontation with the Russians would have been easier going if not for Moscow’s nuclear arsenal. I am not quite the idealist Reagan was: It should not be too difficult to understand that nuclear disarmament is in the strategic interest of the nation with the world’s most powerful conventional forces.
Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about many things — language, culture, politics, high dudgeon and lowdown demagoguery. The Tuesday is available only to NRPlus members — you can become a member here.
Who Is to Blame for Buffalo?
Before the blood was even dry in Buffalo, Democrats were asking the most important question:
“How can we well-heeled white progressives most effectively use the murders of all these black people to our personal and political advantage?”
The murderer in Buffalo didn’t kill anybody you’ve ever heard of, and so the first thing to do if you want to exploit the deaths of all these people — and that is what Democrats intend to do — is to connect the crime to some famous name or prominent institution. It doesn’t matter if there isn’t any actual connection: Just assert it, and that’s good enough for the newspapers and the cable-news cretins and the impotent rage-monkeys on Twitter. And so New York governor Kathy Hochul blames social-media platforms. Amanda Marcotte blames Tucker Carlson. Other hack Democrats blamed Donald Trump, the Republican Party, Fox News, the National Rifle Association, etc. The usual suspects.
Democrats are looking for something — anything — to cling to politically at the moment, because they are terrified that they are going to get wiped out in the midterm elections. And they probably are going to take a beating: Never mind that the Republican Party doesn’t deserve to win — the Democrats deserve to lose, and that’s what matters at the polls. What can Democrats do about that besides pray that Marjorie Taylor Greene has an extra shot of espresso in her moonbat latte this morning? There are options, but they are tough, and apparently it has never crossed Governor Hochul’s mind (such as it is) to try a different approach: Rather than cheap demagoguery and shunting great streams of public money into her husband’s company, she might try competent governance and see how that works out.
Apparently, that never occurred to her. Apparently, it never will.
Apparently, it never occurred to anybody in New York to keep an eye on the lunatic who showed up at school wearing a full hazmat suit. The kid who already was on the radar of the state police and the mental-health bureaucracy. The kid who was asked about his post-graduation plans and answered: murder-suicide.
As with so many shootings of this kind, the massacre in Buffalo didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. The same is true for the less dramatic kinds of shootings, too: There were at least 33 shootings in Chicago over the weekend, and, when the data are in, we’ll almost certainly find that the victims were almost all black and that the shooters almost all had extensive prior criminal records, including prior weapons violations in many cases. This stuff doesn’t just fall out of the sky. It is predictable as the change of seasons. You won’t see a lot of headlines about those 33 shootings, and that is, in one horrifying sense, entirely appropriate: They aren’t really news. News is something unusual, something unexpected.
We talk a great deal about crime in Chicago, because it is a big, dangerous city, and it is one of the five U.S. cities that the national media ordinarily pay attention to. Buffalo is a smaller, more dangerous city, with a homicide rate just slightly above Chicago’s: 18.38 per 100,000 vs. 18.26 per 100,000.
There is much that could be done, if anyone were willing to do it.
Here’s something I am not willing to do: I am not willing to renegotiate the Bill of Rights every time some sexually frustrated loser with a 5.56mm death-boner has a homicidal temper tantrum.
Set aside, for the moment, the inevitable attack on the Second Amendment: Governor Hochul is targeting the First Amendment. Never mind enforcing New York gun laws or funding more proactive policing measures or maybe asking some more pointed questions about the kid who showed up to school in a full hazmat suit, Governor Hochul intends to focus on an area in which she has no authority, expertise, or influence: policing speech online.
From the New York Times:
When pressed on how she planned to confront such hate speech online, without impinging on First Amendment rights, Ms. Hochul noted that “hate speech is not protected” and said she would soon be calling meetings with social media companies.
The New York Times being the New York Times, that “noted” obscures more than it communicates. She didn’t “note” anything. She made something up out of whole cloth. She lied.
(And I have my doubts about the word “pressed” in that sentence, too, unless there was a New York Post reporter on the scene.)
As a matter of constitutional law in the United States, there is no such thing as “hate speech.” It is not a legal term at all — the words have no legal meaning. As such, there certainly is no exception to the First Amendment for “hate speech,” a fact that is well understood and attested to by boatloads of constitutional scholars holding many different political points of view. It is the unanimous position of the Supreme Court. This is not new. Governor Hochul, who has a law degree on her sad little résumé (Erie County clerk and bank lobbyist) ought to know better. Perhaps she has forgotten. Perhaps she missed that day in law school. Perhaps she is a cheap demagogue who ought to be ashamed of herself and of whom New York ought to be ashamed.
There is no such thing as “hate speech” as a matter of constitutional law in the United States, and the sort of thing that is classified as “hate speech” in countries that do have such laws is — pay attention, now — exactlythe kind of speech the First Amendment is designed to protect: offensive, unpopular, detestable, the kind of speech that most people consider immoral and indefensible. The kind of speech nobody likes or wants is the kind of speech the First Amendment is there for — the other kind of speech doesn’t need any protection. Here is a useful heuristic: If you immediately want to suppress somebody’s speech, then that is probably the kind of speech the First Amendment was made for. We write down our laws for a reason, and that reason is because your gut instincts can’t be trusted and because we don’t want our civil rights to depend on whatever kind of daffy electrochemical misfire is happening inside that three-pound ball of meat Kathy Hochul calls a brain on any given Monday morning.
Like “hate speech,” “assault weapon” is a term without meaning. (“Assault rifle” is a term with a formal military sense, and if you think that we should not ordinarily sell them to civilians, then, rejoice: We don’t.) The shooter in Buffalo was armed with an ordinary modern sporting firearm, a 5.56mm semiautomatic rifle — the most common rifle in the United States. It was not, contra the Washington Post, “modified.” The Post headline reads: “Suspect in Buffalo shooting modified Bushmaster so it could hold more ammunition.” But as far as I can tell it was only “modified” by putting this magazine instead of that magazine into the rifle. (Magazines holding more than 10 rounds are illegal in New York State, but the law is effectively unenforceable, and it wouldn’t make any difference in these cases even if it weren’t. EDIT: He would have had to break the lock that keeps the fixed magazine in place, a simple task taking about two minutes, which is what he did. So I suppose the rifle was modified in the sense that a locked-up bicycle is modified when a thief breaks the lock to steal it.) The killer seems to have chosen the Bushmaster brand because it has been associated with similar shootings. This is a reminder that there is no major daily newspaper in the United States of America that is capable of writing about firearms competently.
Another line of argument that has been put forward: We shouldn’t let 18-year-olds buy firearms. I am open to that as a policy reform — we don’t let 17-year-olds buy firearms, and that doesn’t seem to me incompatible with the Second Amendment. But if we are going to treat 18-year-olds like children, then we have to go all the way and raise the age for voting, the age of sexual consent, the age for marriage, getting a tattoo, joining the military, etc. If we are going to take away 18-year-olds’ civil rights, then we have to take away their bank accounts and credit cards, too. The civil right enshrined in the Second Amendment isn’t something that some Supreme Court justice magically pulled out of his penumbra — it is right there, in writing. That means it deserves the highest level of protection and deference — and that means that there are a lot of things that 18-year-olds can lose before their explicitly constitutionally guaranteed rights.
New York already has a “red flag” law on the books. I think those laws are probably unconstitutional, but some legal scholars whose opinion I value disagree. In any case, nobody even bothered to try to take the shooter’s guns away under that law — even after he very publicly expressed his desire to carry out such a massacre.
But, by all means, let’s all go chasing around 4chan and Twitter and see if we can’t sort this all out.
Kathy Hochul is an unserious politician representing an unserious party in an unserious state in a largely unserious country that is kept on the road mostly by sturdy guardrails inscribed in an 18th-century document that some guy wrote with a feather. Events such as the one in Buffalo require a serious response, but there is nobody around to provide one, at least not in elected office. What we have is mediocrities, demagogues, and grandstanding ghouls happy to climb atop any pile of dead Americans, no matter how high or how mangled, to do a little TikTok dance in the blood and sing a verse of “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
But, really, I am sure this is all somehow Tucker Carlson’s fault.
Words about Words
Your interest is piqued, not peaked.
These are not the same word, but they are closely related, belonging to a set of words generally referring to that which is pointy: pike and picket are in the family, as are peck and the eating disorder pica. (Pica from the idea that, like a magpie — pica in Latin for its long, pointy beak — the person in question will eat almost anything.) The word poke may be a distant cousin, from the Middle Low German poken, to “stick with a knife.” Poking and sticking and stabbing and such invited applications to sewing and needlework, and, hence, through a longish but predictable etymological chain, you arrive at piqué, the fabric, which is derived from an Old French word for quilt.
It says something about our culture and its history that English has so many different words, with such fine shadings of degree, for wounded vanity. Pique can mean stimulate, as in piqued my curiosity, but it usually means something more like irritation, as in a fit of pique. The Century Dictionary links pique to umbrage and notes that in both cases the feeling is not necessarily linked to a desire to inflict reciprocal injury on the offending party; “pique is more likely [than umbrage] to be a matter of injured self-respect or self-conceit,” the dictionary says. “It is a quick feeling, and it is more fugitive in its character. Umbrage is founded upon the idea of being thrown into the shade or overshadowed. It has the sense of offense at being slighted or not sufficiently recognized.” The 1841 Webster’s dictionary (thanks again to my in-laws for this splendid Christmas gift) notes that pique “expresses less than exasperate,” and includes “to touch with envy” among its meanings. It also notes a now-lost sense of the word that, in the weird English way, means something like the opposite of the other meanings: “to pride oneself on something.” “Men pique themselves on their skill in the learned languages,” is the example Webster’s gives. There is also this from Matthew Prior’s “Protogenes and Apelles”:
Piqu’d by Protogenes’s fame,
From Co to Rhodes Apelles came,
To see a rival and a friend,
Prepar’d to censure, or commend;
Here to absolve, and there object,
As art with candour might direct.
So, pique, umbrage, exasperation, dudgeon, high dudgeon — more or less in that order, I think.
A correspondent points to a source of ambiguity:
The question is how to punctuate usage of qualifiers like “ex” or “anti” applied to phrases of more than one word.
For example, Jim Geraghty’s Morning Jolt referred to a candidate who was once described as “the anti-Kamala Harris,” which I initially parsed as applying to someone, surnamed Harris, who stood out among the Harrises for being unlike Kamala (and suggesting, also, that it is the nature of Harrises to be pro-Kamala). A favorite of mine is calling someone “an ex-prize fighter,” suggesting that he fights in order to win things that used to be, but no longer are, prizes.
Well-observed. I thank my correspondent.
Here is where typographic nerdery is very helpful. Normally, those of us using conventional word-processing programs have access to three basic kinds of dashes, which are, in ascending order of length, the hyphen (-), the n-dash (–), and the m-dash (—), the latter two so named in typographical convention because traditionally they are the length of an uppercase N and an uppercase M, respectively. The hyphen you will be familiar with, and the m-dash (or em dash) is what most people mean by dash, used in formulations such as: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass — and I’m all out of bubblegum.” You will also see the m-dash used — very often in this newsletter — as a kind of soft and less-formal parenthesis.
The n-dash, however, is a rare beast and a misunderstood one. It has a few different uses, but one very helpful one is forming compound modifiers. We use hyphens in formulations such as “an old-fashioned belief” and “a black-and-white picture,” but we use the n-dash for phrases in which more than one word is joined to a single word: “A fine example of Leave It To Beaver–era television,” “a Franklin Roosevelt–style cigarette holder,” “his Calvin Coolidge–like taciturnity.”
If we can use the n-dash at the end, I don’t see why we can’t use it at the beginning, though this is not common practice: “an ex–prize fighter,” “the anti–Kamala Harris,” etc.
Let’s make this happen.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
Home and Away
There is a recent film called Everything Everywhere All at Once. I like that formulation so much I stole it: What do you get if you do everything wrong everywhere all at once? Joe Biden’s economic policy. More in the New York Post.
You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here.
I joke about drinking a lot, but alcoholism is a terrible problem for people who are afflicted with it, and what is in many ways worse than the physical and emotional effects of alcohol abuse itself is the shame that goes along with it — it is that shame which in many cases keeps people from getting help. To die from shame is a terrible thing, and an unnecessary one. If you are someone who needs that kind of help, please do get it, and do not let shame keep you from doing so. However strong or important or stoical you think you are, stronger and more important and more stoical men have been brought low by booze, and the smart ones have done themselves the good service of getting help. The people who love you care more about your being happy and healthy now and in the future than they do about your failures in the past. Treatment isn’t painless or easy, but we do have relatively effective methods that work reasonably well for the people who want them to work. Call your doctor or a treatment center, or walk into pretty much any church in the country and someone will help you connect with appropriate treatment and support. There is some useful reading here. If you take one step toward the people who want to help you, they will take 20 steps toward you.
Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about language, culture, and politics, with extended parentheticals and excessive — truly excessive! — use of the parenthetical M-dash. To subscribe to the Tuesday and receive it via email as God and Dwight D. Eisenhower intended, please follow this link. If you are reading this as an NRPlus subscriber, I thank you on behalf of all of us here for your support. If you aren’t an NRPlus subscriber, then it is time to sign on the line that is dotted, my friend: The Tuesday goes forever behind the NR paywall from here on out. To quote Jesse James’s palm tattoo: Pay up, sucker. Actually, that’s a little bossy-sounding for this newsletter, habitual prescriptivism notwithstanding. If you would like to continue reading the Tuesday but haven’t signed up for an NRPlus subscription, you can do so at a very reasonable rate by clicking here. I hope you will. There isn’t some billionaire dilettante tech heiress behind National Review, we don’t run a lot of “You Won’t Believe What Happened Next” clickbait, and the best way for us to maintain our freedom and independence is to fund our operations by means of subscriptions. We value our freedom and independence, and so that’s how we are doing things. If that sounds good to you, please do join us. I am sincerely grateful for your support, particularly to those of you who have signed up after my announcements in the past couple of weeks.
The Sign of the Inverted Cross
These pro-abortion maniacs. Yikes.
I wish our bishops were in fact and in deed as pro-life as the people who hate the Catholic Church seem to think they are.
The Catholic Church is officially against abortion, of course — there is no circuitous Jesuitical workaround for “Thou shalt not kill” — but a great many senior figures in the American church are inclined to impersonate country-club Republicans circa 1992: “Sure, we’re against abortion, but let’s not make a whole thing about it.” Pope Francis may be silly about many things — and possibly an outright heretic if you want to get mean about it — but he remains solid on abortion: an “absolute evil,” he calls it. And the pews aren’t any more reliably pro-life than the pulpit: Catholics have on average about the same attitude toward abortion as other Americans, and the horrifying fact is that even a third of those who attend Mass weekly identify themselves as “pro-choice.”
(That is dismaying but not surprising. Jesus and Immanuel Kant both thought of people and institutions in terms of trees: “Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit”; “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” Christians have as much trouble going against the grain as anybody else does, and the American church is planted in the same soil as Scientology and Facebook and Gilligan’s Island.)
If you really want to get in the churchgoing faces of some true-believing pro-lifers next Sunday, I could point you in the direction of some promising Presbyterian, foot-washin’ Baptist, and Mormon congregations that are considerably more reliable on the life issue. Or go find an African Methodist Episcopal church to desecrate, if desecrating the churches of pro-life congregations is the sort of thing you have a heart for — which it shouldn’t be, so don’t do that.
But the maniacs remain fixated on Catholics. That is interesting.
Of course, there are a disproportionate number of Catholics on the Supreme Court. They fall on both sides of the abortion issue, and they are a mixed bunch: There are Irish-American parochial-school cradle Catholics such as Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh. The Court’s most important intellectual, Clarence Thomas, is a former seminarian who was estranged from the church for some 25 years. The Court’s most drearily rote pro-abortion activist is the lapsed Catholic Sonia Sotomayor, who fills the honorary G. Harrold Carswell seat on the Court. (G. Harrold Who? Carswell, an unimpressive figure, was nominated to the Court by Richard Nixon. About his nomination, Senator Roman Hruska, a Nebraska Republican, observed: “There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they?” The senators rejected him, presumably on the grounds that personifying mediocrity is their job.) The Catholic William Brennan voted in favor of Roe in 1973, and the Catholic Anthony Kennedy (who was on the Court only because “Captain Toke” didn’t make it) was a reliable pro-abortion vote.
(Captain Toke? Douglas Ginsburg, a longtime judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and now a much-admired professor of law at George Mason’s Scalia School of Law, is a remarkable man — he became a law professor at Harvard in his third year out of law school — who was nominated to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan and was forced to withdraw when it was revealed that he had — angels and ministers of grace, defend us! — smoked marijuana while a college professor in the 1970s. He was parodied on Saturday Night Live as “Captain Toke.” In the skit, a student asks, “But, Captain Toke, isn’t marijuana . . . illegal?” Captain Toke, high as a Georgia pine, answers: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Jon Lovitz played Ginsburg, I believe, with a turtleneck and big wooden peace sign around his neck. Related: Justice Kennedy said he had a special bond with Roev.Wade author Harry Blackmun: They both were third choices — Kennedy following the failed nominations of Robert Bork and Captain Toke, Blackmun following the failed nominations of Clement Haynesworth and the aforementioned G. Harrold Carswell. Randomness plays a big role in many careers.)
So, if Catholics in the general population and Catholics on the Supreme Court are all over the map on abortion, then why the particular focus on Catholics by the pro-abortion savages out there running around in the streets with bags of bloodied baby dolls and untreated psychoses?
About that, I have a theory.
There is a kind of native anti-Catholicism in the United States, a holdover from the Puritan days when anti-Catholicism was a fundamental part of the emerging national identity. In 1647, Massachusetts adopted two interesting laws: One had a name I love, the Old Deluder Satan Act, which was New England’s first public-school law and which was passed with the idea that promoting literacy would protect the children of Massachusetts from the temptations of popery by allowing them to read Scripture themselves; the second, more direct law made it a crime punishable by death for a Jesuit priest to set foot on the soil of Massachusetts. (We think of Boston as being a very Catholic city, but it didn’t have a Catholic church or even a publicly celebrated Mass until the 19th century.) That kind of anti-Catholicism is still very much a part of Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture in America, as is well appreciated by any Catholic who has been informed umpteen million times that “Catholics worship Mary” and believe that the pope can’t lose a game of checkers and whatever else it is Catholics are supposed to believe. Even well-meaning and good-natured American Protestants have a lot of that in them. These are the epigones of the old Protestant stock whose indictment of Catholics was that they hate sex and have too many children.
The other main kind of religiously rooted anti-Catholicism is the Catholic kind. The kind you see in lapsed Catholics such as Justice Sotomayor and Marxist intellectuals from Catholic Europe and Latin America. Clarence Thomas the seminarian and young black radical broke with the Catholic Church because he was disappointed about his fellow seminarians’ views on race. (And here I don’t mean a dorm-room “microaggression” but cheering the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., that sort of thing.) American college faculties were for years full of angry former seminarians who had quit the church in the 1960s and 1970s over social-justice complaints and became the most vehement anti-Catholic zealots the nation has ever seen, men whose anti-Catholicism would have given pause to Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards.
(I mean the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” Jonathan Edwards, not the hilariously corrupt Democratic poohbah who blew his political career by knocking up a campaign aide and whose Wikipedia page contains these wonderful sentences: “[Campaign aide Andrew] Young further claimed to have set up private meetings between Edwards and Hunter, and that Edwards once calmed an anxious [extramarital lady friend Rielle] Hunter by promising her that after his wife died he would marry her in a rooftop ceremony in New York with an appearance by the Dave Matthews Band. Young also maintains that Edwards asked him to ‘get a doctor to fake the DNA results . . . and to steal a diaper from the baby so he could secretly do a DNA test to find out if this [was] indeed his child.’” The Dave Matthews band part is what upgrades this story from tawdry tabloid tale to legend.)
But I think the main source of anti-Catholicism is a fascination with Catholicism, which has a much richer aesthetic, literary, and philosophical storehouse than anything else on offer in the Western world.
Allow me to briefly change gears to illustrate my point.
As some of you may know, I am a fan of the band Slayer, though I should here dispel the rumor that I am actually in the band. That’s not me:
I’m a fair guitarist, but I’m no Kerry King, pictured above. Kerry King of Slayer is in fact such a highly regarded player that the Dean guitar company makes a Kerry King signature guitar. Slayer being Slayer and very much a creature of the 1980s, the schoolboy-Satanist vibe is pretty strong on the guitar — “This has so many inverted crosses on it,” a Dean representative observes. “For those of you who are too sensitive, it’s not for you.”
(Unexpected product review from the Tuesday: I’ve played one, and it’s a terrific guitar if that’s your kind of music. I don’t think I’d take it to jazz night or use in it a Buck Owens tribute band.)
The whole metal-occult thing is straight from the mind of the angry 15-year-old doodling on a textbook cover who is at the spiritual center of every great rock band, and I’ve never thought of it as something to be taken seriously — and the people who take it seriously definitely are not to be taken seriously — but rather as something more akin to enjoying horror movies.
(And not to go off on a whole disquisition on rock music, but the more you move up the spectrum from metal to punk music, the closer you get to the golden age of horror movies, and you ultimately land at the Misfits, a 1950s horror film in the form of a 1970s punk band. I was very amused to learn a few years ago that the Misfits’ cartoonishly ghoulish Jerry Only is buddies with my former National Review colleague Kat Timpf. New York is a weird, small town.)
Those inverted crosses have always struck me as emblematic, but not in the way that they are intended. I’ve written a dozen different variations on these paragraphs and never been quite satisfied with the result, but I’ll try again:
Western civilization has two main parts: The first is the Greco-Roman classical civilization that brought us democracy, imperialism, the rule of law, the familiar pattern of urban life, Cicero, Virgil, Homer, Plato, Julius Caesar, etc. The second part is Christendom. One need not ignore the religious diversity of Christian Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages and into the modern era to appreciate the fact that Western civilization is Christian civilization. And that Christian civilization is still alive, unlike its pagan forebear, though it is decaying into high-tech barbarism. But, still, that Christian civilization is the civilization in which we live. And Christian culture, Christian philosophy, and Christian themes dominate our art, literature, and political thinking. This is the case both for believing Christians and non-Christians. Caravaggio probably wasn’t a conventional Christian (he was certainly unorthodox, possibly an atheist), but his themes and subjects, and the milieu in which he worked, were Christian to the core. Caravaggio may have been an atheist, but his work was Christian work — and, more to the point, we don’t have a Caravaggio of atheism, or a Caravaggio of secular humanism, or a Caravaggio of mild, resigned agnosticism. The inverted cross is still the cross, and the underside of Christian civilization is still Christian civilization: The Omen is a scary movie because of its religious context; we don’t have scary movies about liberal humanism or yoga.
(I think you could argue that Midsommar is a horror movie about social democracy, an Invasion of the Body Snatchers for our time.)
The schoolboy Satanism of a Slayer album cover, like its more sophisticated literary equivalents (say, Christopher Hitchens’s religious writing), is pure reaction, an aesthetic and a school of thought that define themselves only in terms of what they reject — having no positive content of their own, they are forever doomed to the condition of intellectual and artistic parasite. The inverted cross is, in its way, a confession: that the cross matters as a symbol, and that those who detest it have nothing to put in its place — all they have the wherewithal to do is to invert that which is already there, which was there long before they were and which will be there long after. Another great rock band, Bad Religion, popularized the symbol of the cross inside an interdictory circle (that’s the red circle-and-slash sign, or “universal no,” as it is sometimes called), another purely reactionary gesture: That band’s main songwriter and aesthetic center, Greg Graffin, is a no-kidding real-world scientist with a Ph.D. from Cornell, and for all his learning, he remains intellectually and aesthetically powerless before the cross — he can mock it or reject it, but he cannot escape it, because he has nothing to put it its place.
(I know: G. K. Chesterton already has written The Ball and the Cross, and there is no need for me to rewrite it here. Go read The Ball and the Cross.)
For a parallel case, I think of a BJP politician who observed that India’s is a Hindu civilization and then was chastised by a secular-minded critic: “No, India’s is a civilization with toleration, pluralism, and diversity.” To which the politician answered: “Yes, India has tolerance and pluralism — because it is Hindu, because India is 80 percent Hindu and 20 percent Muslim rather than the other way around.” With all due respect for the diversity of political practice in the Islamic world, the gentleman had a point. In a similar way, the West has its Jeffersons, Darwins, Marxes, etc., because it is Christian.
(I encountered the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens only once — in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, ironically enough, about 10 in the morning, at Bill Buckley’s funeral. He was drunk.)
I think that much of the appeal of communism in the 20th century was the fact that it was probably the closest thing to a real cultural competitor that Christianity had had for a very long time: It had its own aesthetic (socialist realism), its own art and artists, its own literature, its own symbols, its own flag, its own hymns. And it put its mark on works of art that were genuinely original: Diego Rivera’s paintings, John Steinbeck’s novels, Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy — but, then, the disappointed communist Mikhail Bulgakov ended up writing his most famous work about Jesus and Pontius Pilate, and Soviet communism in particular blew on the spark of New Testament eschatology in Marx.
The aesthetic weight of Catholicism is heavier because the Catholic Church is older and more connected to the ancient world (part of the value of Augustine is that he had a foot in both the Christian and Greco-Roman worlds) and because many Protestant traditions take an essentially Islamic view of artistic depiction of the divine. Orthodox Presbyterians, for example, specifically forbid the display of crucifixes, even in private homes, and many Evangelicals will point you to the Canadian theologian J. I. Packer’s essay, “Why You Should Not Wear a Crucifix.”
(Or you could get real serious about it and read up on the “Puritan Regulative Principle of Worship.” Short version: Any form of worship that is not explicitly commanded in Scripture or that is not derived from the same by “good and necessary consequence” is verboten. The Westminster Confession specifically forbids worship “under any visible representation.” My inner Puritan shares the contempt for idolatry, but I think the definition the Puritans arrived at is excessively encompassing.)
Our Protestant friends may have made themselves superabundantly safe from graven images and good architecture, but there just isn’t as much aesthetic juice in beige carpet and folding chairs as there is in Notre-Dame or Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. You can parody the works of Leonardo, because there is a lot of there there. There isn’t a Methodist Leonardo — the words “Methodist Leonardo” sound like the setup to a joke.
The pro-life movement is not a uniquely Catholic movement — it did not really take off politically until Protestants in the South got on board. As Daniel K. Williams observes in That August Journalistic Institution:
Before the mid-1970s, active opposition to abortion in the United States looked almost exactly like opposition to abortion in Britain, Western Europe, and Australia: It was concentrated mainly among Catholics. As late as 1980, 70 percent of the members of the nation’s largest anti-abortion organization, the National Right to Life Committee, were Catholic. As a result, the states that were most resistant to abortion legalization were, in most cases, the states with the highest concentration of Catholics, most of which were in the North and leaned Democratic.
The pro-life movement is not even a particularly Christian thing. There are Jewish pro-lifers, Muslim pro-lifers, Hindu pro-lifers, Buddhist pro-lifers, etc., even though many of those religious communities do not take a strong corporate stand on abortion. (If you want to make a nice vegan progressive with nine cats and a student loan really uncomfortable, tell her what Tibetan Buddhists actually teach about homosexuality.) There are atheist pro-lifers — my friend Charles C. W. Cooke is a famous one, and “Atheists for Life” are a thing. So are “LGBT Against Abortion.” There are many pro-lifers who don’t have any particular religious affiliation, because there are many Americans who don’t have any particular religious affiliation.
But the pro-abortion zealots, like the evangelical atheists, the schoolboy Satanists, and many others of that kidney, are drawn to Catholic churches, Catholic imagery, the peculiarities of Catholic practice (is there anything more radical in our time than celibacy?). Why are they there? I always think of that famous scene in The Exorcist: “The power of Christ compels you!” And doesn’t it? Why else would people be so entirely and so personally obsessed with something they say they believe to be an irrelevant, childish fiction and a mean-spirited plot against their happiness? They are compelled.
They’d never admit it, of course, but there is a reason they end up standing there, bereft, confused, fearful, lonely, screaming themselves hoarse, full of dread, outside the church. Some advice: The door is always open if you decide you want to come inside. It isn’t any easier on the inside, and in many ways it is much harder. But there is a reason you maniacs come to the church to have your public nervous breakdowns and sad little group-therapy sessions. And I think that you don’t actually understand what that reason is.
Last week, I wrote a little about generational suffixes such as Jr., Sr., II, III, etc. I meant to include a bit about middle initials, too. Now I will.
Sometimes, a middle initial is useful for distinguishing a person from someone who has the same name or a very similar one: Our founder, William F. Buckley Jr. (whose “Jr.” I questioned last week) was a contemporary of a few other William and Bill Buckleys, including a famous Australian rugby player. To complicate things, he had almost exactly the same name, very nearly the same year of birth, and some career crossover with another WFB, William Francis Buckley, a special-forces officer and CIA section chief who unhappily was much in the news in the 1980s, when he was kidnapped by Hezbollah, the terrorist outfit that held him hostage and subjected him to torture at the hands of the infamous psychiatrist Aziz al-Abub. He died, probably via execution, while Hezbollah’s hostage. Our WFB was William Frank Buckley, and he worked briefly for the CIA in Mexico as a young man.
There was a Saturday Night Live skit about an accident at a Pittsburgh name-change office, an event witnessed by one Jeffrey B. Epstein, who is irritated when the TV reporter interviewing him keeps omitting the middle initial. “That’s a very important B,” he says. A quick look around the Internet reveals a number of contemporary American men with the name Jeffrey Epstein, many of them using a middle initial.
(Epstein is a “habitational” name, meaning a name connected to a place. There is an Eppstein in Germany, and there probably have been other places with similar names, Eppstein likely being derived from Germanic words meaning water or river and stone. Hence Epstein is equivalent to the English surname Waterstone or the less-common Riverstone.)
I use my middle initial partly because there are a couple of other writers named Kevin Williamson, including the much more famous television-and-movie guy (who is Kevin Meade Williamson) and a Scottish politician and Burns scholar. I have always loved the fact that the guitarist Yngwie J. Malmsteen uses his middle initial — one wouldn’t want to confuse him with all the other Yngwies one encounters. If you don’t know Yngwie’s music, he is a famously virtuosic rock guitarist who incorporates elements of classical music, especially Baroque, into his playing. He is the reason guitarists who grew up in the 1980s all know the harmonic minor scales, and the J. in his name is, almost inevitably, for “Johan.” He was born Lars Johan Yngve Lannerbäck.
You still see “Dwight D. Eisenhower” from time to time, even though you could dispense with his middle initial and his first name entirely without confusion, or cut him all the way down to “Ike,” a nickname for which those mid-century headline writers must have been grateful. There remains a lively debate about the orthography of the name of his predecessor, Harry S Truman — because the S did not actually stand for anything (his parents apparently put the S in there to split the difference between his grandfathers, Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young), it is not technically correct to write it with a period: “Harry S. Truman.” According to legend, he wrote his name “Harry S Truman” until the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style chided him for it, after which he used the period or else ran everything together: “HarrySTruman.”
A reader asks about a recent Dan McLaughlin piece at National Review, about the Supreme Court leaker, and points to the sentence: “A clerk who is found out could easily end up fired, disbarred for breaching confidences, and maybe prosecuted.”
The question: Should that maybe be may be?
It may be the case. Maybe.
It certainly is the case that the clerk may be prosecuted, but we also use maybe colloquially to mean possibly. “We’re going to meet after work, have dinner, and maybe talk about the situation with the Finkelstein kid and whether he should be sent to military school.”
There would be slight differences in connotation, but I think Dan could have written that either way and been on solid ground, though if you want to use the verb may be rather than the adverb maybe, then you’d want a subject after that comma and coordinating conjunction: “He could easily end up fired or disbarred, and he may be prosecuted.”
(Yeah, I’m sticking with that neuter he.)
But you wouldn’t write, “May be I’ll take a nap,” or “I maybe wrong.” You will find may be for maybe in earlier English. It means the same thing as perhaps, which is also pretty archaic-sounding if you think about it or if you write it in the original way, as two words: per hap, meaning by chance.
Some familiar guidance applies here: Maybe and may be don’t mean the same thing, so just make sure to use the one you mean.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
Home and Away
You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here.
With all this abortion craziness going on — the office of a pro-life group was firebombed in Wisconsin — President Joe Biden is out there talking about subsidizing high-speed Internet. America’s poor cry out with one voice: “Please, for the love of God, relieve us of our Oberlin student loans, and knock five bucks a month off our broadband bills!”
I hope to write some more on this, but if you are interested in the ongoing fight over public monuments, then check out Erin L. Thompson’s Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments. I disagree with much of the book and expect that many of you will, too, but it is very interesting and probably the best-informed and most thorough treatment of the subject I have read. Thompson’s biography identifies her as a “professor of art crime at the City University of New York,” which sounds like something from a Dan Brown novel, but no sane person wants to read a Dan Brown novel. (Except his publishers and agent, I guess, and the small team of theoretical mathematicians who keep track of his money for him, and maybe Tom Hanks.) There is a particular irony to the fact that so much of our discussion of these historical monuments lacks historical context, and Professor Thompson provides some, a useful public service.
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The Most Dangerous Fiction
It is a little bit surreal to hear China’s rulers and their servants talk about Taiwan. It is a little like a little kid who is very, very committed to his imaginary friend.
In the recent session of China’s rubber-stamp ersatz parliament, there were many energetic denunciations of “separatist” elements seeking “independence” for Taiwan, according to English-language media reports. When former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe wrote a Los Angeles Times op-ed comparing Taiwan’s situation vis-à-vis China to Ukraine’s relationship with Russia, the Chinese consul general in Los Angeles wrote angrily to the newspaper:
The situations in Taiwan and Ukraine cannot be compared. Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, where the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government. This One-China Principle is explicitly stated in both joint communiqués for establishing China-U.S. and China-Japan diplomatic ties.
In one sense, the consul general is absolutely right. In another sense, he is absolutely full of it.
There is a considerable degree of ritual in Beijing’s fretting about the “independence” of Taiwan, which has been an independent country — and a thriving democracy with a sophisticated economy — for many years now. Likewise, to call the Taiwanese “separatists” is very strange in that Taiwan has been separate from Beijing for decades and decades.
On the other hand, it is the case that both the United States and China — and Japan — officially buy into the “One China” policy, which is a fundamental part of the basis of diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing. Under “One China,” Washington officially acknowledges just what the consul general says: “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, where the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government.” Washington has no official relations with Taipei — Taiwan in fact has normal diplomatic relations with only a baker’s dozen of countries, mostly small and obscure ones (Nauru, Palau, etc.) a few more prominent ones (Belize, Guatemala, Haiti) and one of great symbolic importance: the Holy See.
The United States maintained relations with Taiwan for decades after its establishment until President Jimmy Carter suddenly abandoned Taiwan in 1979 to pursue a closer relationship with the so-called People’s Republic of China on the theory that Beijing could be a reliable part of a united front against Moscow and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, then our chief global adversary. The United States maintains robust political, cultural, economic, and military relations with Taiwan, a country that, as far as the official story in Washington is concerned, does not exist. The two nations do more than $100 billion in trade annually, but Washington does not recognize the government in Taipei.
There is a delusional Taiwanese version of the “One China” policy, too, the official view of the Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party or KMT) that there is one China and that the regime in Taipei is the legitimate government of all of it. KMT traditionally opposes “Taiwanization” and emphasizes closer relations with Beijing — not exactly what you’d expect from an anticommunist nationalist party, but it is a complex situation. The center-left Democratic Progressive Party, which currently runs the show in Taipei, also calls itself a nationalist party, but the nation it means is Taiwan, not a notional unified China.
Washington accepted the One China fiction as a Cold War expedient, but the expedient has outlived its expediency. As I noted in an earlier newsletter, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an act of naked international aggression, but a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be — on paper, as a formality, in the official view of the United States — an internal matter, Beijing taking extraordinary measures to reincorporate a breakaway province. That isn’t how things actually stand, of course, but the “One China” fiction matters — for one thing, it provides Beijing with a fig leaf if not a moral permission slip, and, for another, it actually encourages Beijing to believe that it can act as though “One China” described the real world. Washington calls its Taiwan policy one of “strategic ambiguity,” and, while ambiguity certainly has its uses, it is also dangerous.
Shinzo Abe writes:
Russia’s invasion is not only an armed violation of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, but also an attempt to overthrow the government of a sovereign state with missiles and shells. On this point, there is no controversy in the international community over the interpretation of international law and the UN Charter. While the extent to which countries participate in sanctions against Russia has differed, no country has claimed that Russia is not in serious violation of international law.
By contrast, China claims that Taiwan is “part of its own country,” and the US and Japanese position is to respect this claim. Neither Japan nor the US has official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and most countries around the world do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state. Unlike in Ukraine, Chinese leaders could claim that any invasion of Taiwan that China launches is necessary to suppress anti-government activities in one of its own regions, and that such acts therefore would not violate international law.
When Russia annexed Crimea, the international community ultimately acquiesced, even though Russia had violated Ukrainian sovereignty. Given this precedent, it is not surprising that Chinese leaders may very well expect the world to be more tolerant should they, too, adopt the logic of “regional” — rather than national — subjugation.
This logic has made strategic ambiguity untenable.
Under the Biden administration and a surprisingly robust bipartisan congressional consensus, the United States has — to its credit — undertaken unexpected and extraordinary measures to support Kyiv against the predations of Vladimir Putin. Putin complains that the United States is conducting a proxy war against Russia, and Putin is not far from wrong. President Biden dices it pretty fine when he insists, “We’re not attacking Russia; we’re helping Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression.”
While there are critical lacunae in the U.S. and EU sanctions regime, the United States and our European allies are doing everything short of sending regular troops into the battle. Weapons and equipment supplied by the United States and European governments are being used by a Ukrainian military that is — and should be — conducting operations not only inside Ukraine but also inside Russia. It seems likely that at some point Moscow will decide that the United States is an undeclared belligerent in the Ukraine war, and, if that time comes, Moscow will have a pretty good case. The United States and the Biden administration are right to take a hard line here, but we should as a country be clear in our own minds about what that means. While it is something close to a metaphysical certainty that U.S. forces would sweep the Russians off the battlefield like toy soldiers in a direct confrontation between conventional forces, there are obvious risks to such a confrontation (Putin has a considerable nuclear arsenal) and non-obvious risks as well.
In many important ways, our current confrontation with Moscow is a useful test run for our likely future confrontation with Beijing. It is certainly a useful one for Beijing, which now has a good understanding — one hopes it is a sobering understanding — of the likely scope and intensity of U.S. and European sanctions that might be deployed against a too-adventurous China, and the capabilities and limitations of what the Western world can bring to the fight short of putting troops in the field. President Biden is not exactly an inspiring or energetic leader — or, in many regards, even a credible one — but the country is in some ways less divided than had been supposed, and when figures such as Tucker Carlson and J. D. Vance attempted to pull a cynical Charles Lindbergh on the Ukraine war, they got their fingers burned. Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, and Ursula von der Leyen all together might not add up to one Winston Churchill, but there is reason to think that we can manage in this case without one. This isn’t an age of heroes, but there is still work to be done.
Which brings us back to the tense Taiwan Strait.
Senior figures in the Biden administration have been holding talks with their U.K. counterparts with the goal of developing a better-coordinated policy on China and Taiwan. Similar outreach has been undertaken toward our European partners. The new AUKUS security bloc was launched with an eye toward China, too. There are many in Washington, London, and Brussels — and Taipei — who worry that the war in Ukraine is a prelude.
In a sign of the enhanced co-operation with the UK, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, a British aircraft carrier, last year spent more than six months deployed in the Indo-Pacific. Heino Klinck, a former top Pentagon Asia official, welcomed the US-UK consultations on Taiwan. He said they came on the heels of European naval deployments in the Indo-Pacific that increased last year after the Trump administration had held discussions with European allies about boosting operations in the South China Sea.
“Deterring Chinese aggression against Taiwan is in everyone’s interest. It is not just an Indo-Pacific issue, it is a global issue,” said Klinck. “US military planners are not counting on Germany or France sending warships, or Britain sending a carrier in the case of a conflict over Taiwan. But when those countries send ships to the South China Sea, or transit the Taiwan Strait, it sends a strong signal to China.”
A senior Taiwanese official said Taipei was aware of the US efforts to involve more allies in its Taiwan planning. “They’ve been doing it with Japan and Australia, and now they’re trying to do it with Britain,” he said.
It surely is the case that “deterring Chinese aggression against Taiwan is in everyone’s interest.” It is in Beijing’s interest, to begin with, even if Beijing doesn’t know it.
And so the HMS Queen Elizabeth patrols the Indo-Pacific, and the bland old men who sit behind desks in the world’s capitals move their chessmen around the board. The situation is a complex one. But I cannot help thinking that we might simplify it a great deal by dispensing with the lie — which is what the “One China” policy is. Perhaps it was true in some sense at some time. But the fact is that Taiwan today is as much of a real country as Germany or France or the United States.
If we mean to take seriously our historical commitment to Taiwan, then the thing to do is to be plain about the fact that we’d think of China’s invading Taiwan the same way as we’d think of its invading one of these.
But that isn’t true, either.
And Furthermore . . .
Sovereignty is a subject that seems to draw to itself all sorts of funny little fictions. We pretend that China and Taiwan are one country and that Taiwan isn’t sovereign. We treat countries such as Pakistan as sovereign even though the government doesn’t actually control much of the country. I think about this sometimes in the case of the U.S. government’s relationship with the Indian nations, whose sovereignty is an official fiction to which we remain very strongly committed. I am no expert on native issues and am entirely open to the argument that Washington should take tribal sovereignty seriously, but Washington doesn’t — see, for example, how little tribal sovereignty means when it comes to the so-called War on Drugs. I can’t help thinking that some kind of rectification is needed, that we should either stop pretending we believe in tribal sovereignty or start acting like we do.
And Further-er-more . . .
There is a scene in The Lion in Winter that perfectly encapsulates the might-makes-right politics that we liberals and idealists are always trying to get past but never can. In a testy confrontation between Henry II of England and his French counterpart, Philip II, Hank the Deuce insists that a certain French territory is his. “By whose authority?” Philip demands. “It’s got my troops all over it,” Henry answers. “That makes it mine.”
Words About Words
A reader writes:
Your recent use of the term “sacralized” is a bit jarring for your medical readers.
For us it refers to a lumbar vertebra which — by virtue of a common and usually benign anatomical variation — is immobile relative to its immediate neighbor, the sacrum, and hence “sacralized.”
This obviously has no religious or cultural significance, my use of the word “virtue” in my explanation notwithstanding.
I thank my correspondent.
Context is everything: I don’t think any of my readers is going to mistake an adjective referring to a politician for something suggesting the existence of a backbone.
The same goes for “virtue.”
Kevin, what do you think of the use of “Nazis” here?
First, I will give myself a preemptive “Lighten up, Francis.” We’ve been talking about the Soup Nazi, grammar Nazis, HOA Nazis, and the like for a long, long time. In terms of the things that have contributed to the coarsening of our political culture, I put the humorous abuse of “Nazi” way down there with those “In This House, We Believe” signs. It isn’t something to be taken seriously, probably.
(On a related note, I think that comedians such as Mel Brooks are right that, having defeated Adolf Hitler and his National Socialism, the best thing we can do is to ridicule their memory.)
That being said . . .
I think we should call each other “Nazis” a lot less in our political conversation. The same goes for “Marxists” and “fascists” and “Stalinists” and a great many similar terms of abuse.
There are a few Nazis in American public life and have been over the years: I recently wrote about the ACLU’s defense of the National Socialist Party of American Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell’s rights under the First Amendment, a reminder that the American Left was once liberal. (It is a great loss to our civil society that the ACLU no longer believes in that sort of thing.) But there are not many actual Nazis or Nazi admirers. We have Jew-hating weirdos such as Louis Farrakhan and people of that ilk, and a handful of Twitter trolls who loom large among the Very Online. (It is easy to exaggerate how many: As Megan McArdle recently pointed out on the Remnant podcast, the people involved in a headline-generating Twitter convulsion would all together not fill up a good-sized Texas high-school football stadium.) A Nazi is a specific kind of person with a specific point of view, and there are all sorts of ways to be bad and wrong without being a Nazi. I think it is important to pay attention to those distinctions: If you want to understand a white nationalist such as Richard Spencer, for example, it is helpful to understand what he actually thinks and what he actually wants to do.
There are a few actual Marxists and Marxians in public life, such as Slavoj Žižek, and a considerably larger number of socialists, including self-identified socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. One of the best — and most honest — professors I had in college described himself as a Marxist (back then, it was still sort of fashionable), though I am not sure he still does. And you should listen to people when they tell you what they are: Take Steve Bannon seriously when he calls himself a “Leninist.”
As I wrote in The Smallest Minority, Americans who have made a religion of politics — and who have become disconnected from such traditional sources of meaning and connection as family and church — dream of an apocalyptic conflict between themselves and those they perceive to be their enemies, and they can understand themselves only in terms of their enemies because their own characters lack sufficient content to construct an identity on a positive basis rather than a merely reactive one. That is why the only thread connecting the various elements of the contemporary Right is anti-Leftism and the only thread connecting the factions of the Left is anti-Rightism. If they’re for it, we’re against it — it’s as simple as that.
Abraham Lincoln, who was active during a considerably more challenging and bloody chapter of American history, rejected the notion that we should understand each other as enemies. (As a matter of rhetoric, that fluffy stuff about the “mystic chords of memory” seems to me to be much less moving than the sturdy plain syllables: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”) In these times of relative peace and prosperity, we ought to be able to do at least as much. At some point, we are going to have to deal with the fact that “Own the Libs!” is not compatible with: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
I think that if your politics necessitates that you regard your fellow countrymen as enemies, then you need to rethink your politics. And, possibly, that you need to grow the f*** up.
Of course, I have contributed to that at times, and have repented of the fact. I expect to repent of it again, and to keep repenting of it for as long as I am writing.
And that being written . . .
If I’m being totally honest, I’m more irritated by the hijacking of the name of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist for some dopey knucklehead newsletter than I am about Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi.”
“Hank the Deuce” was the nickname of Henry Ford II. Wikipedia identifies him as the son of Edsel Ford I and the grandson of Henry Ford I, but, unless you are writing about a king or a pope, putting “I” after the name of a person who has namesake descendants seems to me a bit much.
And, of course, you don’t use a “I” after a name if there is no II, or if you are writing in a historical context that precedes the II. William Shakespeare’s purportedly virginal patroness did not become Elizabeth I until June 2, 1953, with the coronation of Elizabeth II.
Hank the Deuce was Henry Ford II and not Henry Ford Jr. because his father was not Henry Ford (I) — that was his grandfather. This comes up in some families that like to stick to a few names, as old East Coast WASP clans used to do. Properly, a man is a Jr. if he has exactly the same name as his father, and he is a II if he has exactly the same name as his grandfather or another direct ancestor. The second president named George Bush is sometimes wrongly called George Bush Jr. or “junior,” but he is not that, because he does not have precisely the same name as his father: The younger Bush is George Walker Bush, while his father is George Herbert Walker Bush. Walker is the maiden name of President George H. W. Bush’s mother, Dorothy, the wife of Senator Prescott Bush. Certain names have a way of sticking around in politics and cropping up: President George H. W. Bush has a daughter named Dorothy Walker Bush Koch, who is sometimes assumed — wrongly — to have married into the family of famous libertarian political activists, but her husband, who has what is probably a pretty fun job as the wine industry’s No. 1 lobbyist, is unrelated to that family.
Traditionally, a man retired “Jr.” upon the death of his father, but William F. Buckley Jr. remained known as that to the end of his days, even though his father, William F. Buckley Sr., is known to history mostly only for being the father of William F. Buckley Jr.
(And editor of the Cactus yearbook at the University of Texas.)
(Incidentally, WFB’s grandfather was the elected sheriff of Duval County, Texas, holding office — almost inevitably, given the time and place — as a Democrat. According to one newspaper account, he was still showing up at the polls to vote Democrat as late as Lyndon Johnson’s 1948 Senate election, which bespeaks a truly incredible political commitment for a man who died in 1903.)
So, to sum up: Henry Ford II was not Henry Ford Jr., George W. Bush is not George Bush Jr., and William F. Buckley Jr. technically should have stopped being Jr. with the death of his father in 1958.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
Home and Away
You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here.
When it feels like the world is falling apart, I seek refuge in religious rituals — but not because I believe my prayers will be answered. The prayers we say in synagogue remind me that evil has always been with us but that people persevere, survive and even thrive. I take my kids so that they feel connected to that tradition, so that they know the world has been falling apart from the start — and that there’s beauty in trying to put it back together.
Soon, Rex will stand before our congregation and pray to a God he can’t quite believe in. It will be a magical morning, and for that moment, at least, we’ll transcend the troubles of the world.
This is a sort of reverse recommendation — you should read it, but not because it is good. Rather, it is worth pondering the fact that an actual philosophy professor writing in the New York Times cannot manage more than this remarkably superficial engagement with the basic questions of religion. Recently retired Times editor Dean Bacquet once observed: “We don’t get religion,” that nobody on the Times staff really understands the role of religion in American life. Well, keep looking.
Don’t blame me if you read that and end up taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about politics, language, and culture, proper nouns and improper thoughts. Also dachshunds, from time to time, but not every week. To get access to the Tuesday as part of a National Review membership — which soon will be the only way to read the Tuesday — please go here. Thanks to all of you who already have signed up since last week’s invitation — your support means a great deal to me and to all of us here at National Review.
A Country without a Left
A country without a Left may sound like a paradise to American conservatives, but it isn’t the paradise they had in mind.
Vive la France!
France’s 2017 presidential election was a preview of the one that took place over the weekend: Emmanuel Macron won, and Marine Le Pen claimed a moral victory owing to the fact that she didn’t lose as badly as she did the time before. The 2017 French election season was notable for another development: the collapse of the Socialist Party, which in France is the center-left party. In fact, the Socialists’ showing in the parliamentary elections that season was so poor — it went from having 280 out of 577 seats to just 29 — that it lost its state subsidies, meaning that the party would not be refunded for the cost of running its election, as is the French practice. The party was financially ruined: It warmed many a capitalist heart to see the strapped Socialists forced to sell their party headquarters, a splendid Left Bank mansion — these are French socialists we are talking about. In 2022, the Socialist candidate was knocked out in the first round, winning less than 2 percent of the vote. Which is to say, in this election what once was France’s main center-left party has underperformed the showing the Libertarian Party in the United States enjoyed in 2016.
(N.B.: 2016 was an unusually good year for the Libertarian Party, another reminder that Trump vs. Herself should have been a New York City mayoral election, not a presidential race.)
Of course, it isn’t entirely true that France has no Left left: The third-place finisher in the first round was the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. And it isn’t only the center-left party that is in trouble: The Republican (center-right) candidate also was knocked out in the first round, winning less than 5 percent of the vote.
And so, as things stand, there appear to be two major blocs in French politics: The technocratic-progressive Macron bloc and the nationalist-populist Le Pen bloc.
Put another way, France just had its 2016: The far-left candidate was a significant but in the end minor factor (So long, Bernie!), the center-left element coalesced around a technocratic progressive-centrist (which is the position that the Clinton and Obama factions always have aspired to), the old center-right tendency was effectively absent, and the nationalist-populist element grew in stature by fusing a species of reconstituted social conservatism with big-spending welfare populism. Donald Trump won and Marine Le Pen lost, but the political vectors in play are remarkably similar in the two cases.
So, who is Emmanuel Macron? He is the most popular French political figure . . . in Germany, which should tell you most of what you need to know about him. Macron began his career in the Socialist Party, became an independent, and then ran for president on the ticket of a party he founded as his own personal vehicle: La République En Marche! (As in the case of 1990s rock bands Therapy? and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the punctuation is part of the name.) Macron has a great deal in common with Barack Obama: He began as a left-winger and moved toward the center when he desired to become a national figure; he has genuinely technocratic tendencies, together with a tendency to take political and ideological pet projects and dress them up in technocratic drag; his party is organized (reorganized, in Obama’s case) around his personal political interests and does not fare nearly as well as he does in its legislative and local races; he is often arrogant and at times insufferable; he is very, very lucky in his opponents.
But he is unlike Obama in important ways, too: Obama left office with a 59 percent approval rating, while Macron faced reelection with the precise inverse approval rating: 41 percent. (Obama was at a solid 53 percent in his 2012 reelection.) Americans are generally pretty well disposed toward Barack Obama (if this comes as a surprise to you, you need to broaden your media diet), while the French — including many of those who voted for him — generally detest Macron, denouncing the former Socialist as président des riches.
In many ways like Obama, Macron also is in many ways the French version of a 1990s Democrat, beginning with the fact that he is made rapt by Silicon Valley–style business rhetoric, describing his vision for France as building a “start-up nation.” He is very much a Europeanist (he marched to his victory celebration to the tune of Beethoven’s Ninth, the European Union’s version of a national anthem) and a globalist, a progressive and a Davos man. (And surely a Monocle man.) He is a business-friendly corporate progressive in the Clintonian New Democrat mode.
Marine Le Pen is something that once would have seemed strange if not anathematic to the American Right: a right-winger who lands a bit to the left of Elizabeth Warren on most economic issues. Le Pen, like Donald Trump and many of the figures who wish to claim his gold-lamé mantle, is what is sometimes called a “welfare chauvinist,” a term that is useful in that the most obvious alternative — national socialist — comes with a great deal of baggage. She is as perfect a modern example as you will find of Jonah Goldberg’s observation that as a practical matter almost all socialist regimes end up being nationalist regimes and most nationalist regimes end up being socialist regimes. A socialized industry is a nationalized industry and vice versa, but there is more than economics at play: Goldberg is correct in identifying this as a matter of sentimentality in that rationalist theories of government fail to inspire the kind of emotional commitment necessary to sustain the regime and thereby require the psychological oomph of nationalism, ethno-nationalism, or some other political tendency that implicates issues of identity. Stalin always elbows out Trotsky, and the dream of worldwide revolution always ends up being the Great Patriot War to Save the Motherland.
The reference point of social conservatism is, ironically, easily shifted. French social conservatism once meant Catholicism and monarchy, whereas Le Pen and her element position themselves as champions of French secularism, particularly vis-à-vis Muslim immigrants. Thirty years ago, Donald Trump would have been held up as Mr. Bad Example by the same American social conservatives who rallied to his cause in 2016 and 2020. The Golden Age is wherever you find it: There are Americans Left and Right who wish to fix the nation forever in 1957, though for very different reasons.
Whatever the point of reference, social conservatism and welfare-statism meet and conjoin on the common ground of Hobbit-hole sentimentality, which is predicated on the false belief that if modern capitalism were a little less dynamic and a lot less global then there would be a renaissance of civic and community life, of life lived at the family, village, and parish level rather than the transnational scale or, as in the cases of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, the extraterrestrial scale. In reality, everybody chooses modern capitalism, because nobody really wants a 1957 standard of living — I’ll confidently wager that J. D. Vance does not live in an 800-square-foot house without air-conditioning — but the welfare-chauvinists believe (again, wrongly) that atavistic economic policies would put them on more defensible ground when it comes to social status, which is, of course, what right-wing populism is all about: It always begins with Tucker Carlson of the La Jolla He-Man Woman-Haters’ Country Club sounding the klaxons of alarum about the death of masculinity and ends with Madison Cawthorn in a lace bustier. Somewhere along the way, Republicans give up the idea of balancing the budget or reforming entitlements.
Anti-capitalist conservatism and anti-capitalist reaction are familiar elements of Continental politics. There is a tradition of anti-capitalism in Anglo-American conservatism, too, and it is very closely allied with anti-modernism. T. S. Eliot, the great Modernist American poet, was such a social reactionary that he ended up an Englishman (accent and all!) whose Tory politics were quite at home with his skepticism of business and industry, his prescient environmentalism, his neo-medieval model of community life, and — unhappily, this is not incidental — his antisemitism. J. R. R. Tolkien — the original Hobbit-hole sentimentalist — had a deep dread of technology and industrialization, which he wrote about in terms that were more mystical than political. There is a good deal of wisdom in Shire conservatism — “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!” — but in politics as in literature, that life is mainly fantasy: The world does not go away when you cover your eyes.
A capitalism-skeptical Right may seem alien to those of us who remember OK Soda, but you’ll find similar sentiments everywhere from Albert Jay Nock to Dwight Eisenhower’s misunderstood “military-industrial complex” speech. (Eisenhower was in many ways a High Modernist, as much a midcentury icon as an Eames lounge chair, but there was a strain of 19th-century prairie populism in him, too.) The tendency is more pronounced in Catholic Europe than it is in the English-speaking countries, where private wealth has long provided a welcome counterbalance to the power of the state. England may be a “nation of shopkeepers,” in Napoleon’s (supposed) estimate, but, as it turns out, all that shopkeeping makes a nation rich, free, and powerful — a lesson not lost on England’s overseas descendants.
Not lost until recently, anyway.
In the United States as in France, we are seeing politics settling into two main blocs: a technocratic-progressive bloc with its roots in the Left and allied with the commanding heights of business, and a reactionary-populist bloc that has swallowed up most of the Right while attracting enough support from the center and the Left (those Sanders-to-Trump voters are a real thing, though the rank-and-file union vote shifting rightward is a bigger deal) to leave the Left proper as a weak third-place contender in a political contest that recognizes only first and second place.
Figures such as Elizabeth Warren are seeking to straddle the technocratic and left-wing camps in the belief that this is the surest route to power against a thoroughly Trumpist Republican Party, but Sanders-style socialism remains a distinctly minority taste among critical voting blocs within the Democratic Party, which is why Joe Biden won the 2020 nomination and is president today. Of course, personalities will shape coming events: Le Pen has lost enough presidential races that she probably will be obliged to pass the baton, and I doubt that Trump will run again on the Republican side, though I do not regard that as an impossibility. As it stands, both camps are limited mainly by their respective cultural radicalisms: There are moderate conservatives who could find some common ground with pro-market technocrats but find it impossible to share political space with people who can’t say what a woman is and support legal abortion up until the moment of delivery. (And, in more cases than you’d think, a ways beyond.) There are moderate Democrats who might be attracted to a political party that wants to protect or even enhance their social-welfare benefits while also taking seriously issues such as crime and illegal immigration but who cannot work themselves around to joining a party that goes to such extraordinary lengths to accommodate anti-vaccine kooks, the Jewish-space-laser element, and (WFB forgive the term!) crypto-Nazis.
And like France’s Republicans, the sort of people who used to be Republicans in the United States — social conservatives who also support free enterprise and an assertive foreign policy backed by a strong national defense — are reduced to the point of near irrelevance as far as elections are concerned, though they maintain some institutional power.
We may end up being a country that is effectively without a Left, but that doesn’t mean that conservatives are going to get what they want.
Words About Words
A reader asks: Why is it that the past tense of wreak havoc isn’t wrought havoc?
The answer is because wrought is not the past tense of wreak — it is an old and almost forgotten past tense of work.
Wreak means cause, but it has the destruction baked into it: Its original sense is avenge. So you wreak havoc, wreak your revenge, etc. All negative and destructive uses.
But when Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message, it was “What hath God wrought!” That isn’t a question, by the way, though you often see it that way: “What hath God wrought?”
The phrase comes from the Book of Numbers:
He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: the Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.
God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.
Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!
Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion, and lift up himself as a young lion: he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain.
Drinking the blood of the slain — that’s some great Old Testament stuff, right there.
We have authoritative sources for how words are spelled: The general practice for any given stylebook or publication is to choose a specific dictionary and to follow its guidance in situations where there are multiple spellings for a given word — usually, the preferred spelling is the one that has the full definition, while the variants are simply noted as that. So if you’re an American Heritage Dictionary shop, it’s adviser, not advisor.
But what about how proper nouns are styled?
As noted above, some names feature quirky insertions of punctuation marks (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Therapy?, will.i.am, etc.) or play games with capitalization: bell hooks, FOX News, MGMT, eBay, USA TODAY. Capitalization comes up frequently with initialisms and acronyms. (Those aren’t the same thing: An acronym is pronounced as though it were a word, like FISA or NASA, as opposed to USDA or FBI.) The Associated Press approach is to capitalize letters only in initialisms where they are individually pronounced (CIA, not Cia; Ikea, not IKEA) and to handle acronyms by more or less arbitrary convention: UNESCO, but Patriot Act, scuba, laser, etc.
(The PATRIOT Act is — I hate these cutesy legislative acronyms — “Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” LASER is “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” SCUBA is “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.” Laser and scuba have become common nouns and so do not get capitalized, but PATRIOT Act is a proper noun, so I’d keep PATRIOT uppercase, against AP’s guidance.)
But convention gets us only so far.
I don’t see any way around just including the funny punctuation however it is received. Capitalization I take on a case-by-case basis. Part of me says the best thing to do is to just write a name the way its owner does, but part of me doesn’t want to reward a company for relying on cheap attention-grabbing all-caps. Love you, USA Today, but, USA TODAY? Not gonna do it.
There is an old convention, honored here, in which a publication small-caps its own name in its own pages, and so we are National Review here but National Review elsewhere.
In any case, you still capitalize the first word of a sentence, so it’s “Bell hooks was born in . . .” “EBay was founded in . . .” Etc.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
Home and Away
I am not the world’s biggest Twitter fan, as you may know if you have read The Smallest Minority. And while I don’t have a particular dog in the fight, it is fun watching Elon Musk scare the pants off of that gang of miscreants. More in the New York Post.
You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the “Real America,” here.
Write a column about how Twitter makes people nasty and imbecilic, get nasty and imbecilic Twitter responses. Kind of meta!
Well-known MAGA guy, indeed.
The thing about stupid people is, they’re stupid.
Yesterday was the feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist. He is invoked against (among many things) both impenitence and insect bites. With the weather warming up and summer just around the corner, both are likely to be needed. He is also a patron saint of both lawyers and prisoners — I suppose that you may petition him in the former capacity to avoid the need to petition him in the latter one.
Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter on politics, language, and culture. Also, dachshunds. To get access to the Tuesday as part of a National Review membership — which, starting in a couple of weeks, will be the only way to read the Tuesday — please go here. As always, I am grateful for the remarkable support of our readers and friends here at National Review, who have been the foundation of our work since 1955.
The Workers’ Party?
“Democrats are the party of working people.” So states Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) in a “guest essay” — it isn’t an essay at all; it is ordinary campaign literature — in the New York Times. Senator Warren could have used some editing. The first thing her New YorkTimes editors should have asked:
Is that true?
Let’s think about that phrase, “working people.” You would think that “working people” would mean “people who work,” but that is not what Senator Warren wants it to mean. Hedge-fund managers are working people — it is fashionable to sneer at people working in finance, but if you think that it isn’t work, try doing it. You think they’re giving all that money away? Doctors are working people. Lawyers are working people. College professors and novelists and movie producers are all working people, too. Even some journalists are working people, though not very many of them.
So, if “working people” does not mean “people who work,” what might it mean?
Maybe it is supposed to mean blue-collar workers, the industrial and manufacturing workers who make up what at least a few of Senator Warren’s colleagues at Harvard still refer to as the “proletariat.” It certainly is the case that the Democratic Party once was the party of factory workers and farmers — that’s why the party in Minnesota is still known as the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party. The word “union” used to have a distinctly lower-middle-income taste to it, but it doesn’t really anymore. Most unionized workers in the United States today are government employees, with incomes that range from the upper-middle to the high. These union workers are public-school teachers making $125,000 a year in the suburbs of Pittsburgh — the Molly Maguires, they ain’t.
Setting aside the unionized public-sector professionals and clerical workers, what about the old-school union workers, the men and women who put stuff together in factories and steel mills and whatnot? A great many of them vote for Democrats, but a great many don’t. And don’t is on the rise as ordinary workers act on the most obvious of all political facts: that the interests of the union bosses, who have been entirely captured by the Democratic Party, are not precisely the same as the interests of the union workers themselves.
The shift among union voters was enough to swing the election to Trump. According to the CCES, Obama won union voters by 34.4 percentage points in 2012, but Clinton did so by only 16.7 points in 2016. That roughly 18-point swing was worth a net of 1.2 percentage points for Trump in Pennsylvania, 1.1 points in Wisconsin and 1.7 points in Michigan based on their rates of union membership — and those totals were larger than his margins of victory in those states.
Robert Reich doesn’t think the Democrats represent these “working people,” either, writing in 2016:
The Democratic party once represented the working class. But over the last three decades the party has been taken over by Washington-based fundraisers, bundlers, analysts, and pollsters who have focused instead on raising campaign money from corporate and Wall Street executives and getting votes from upper middle-class households in “swing” suburbs.
Those suburban swing voters are the real game here, but let’s put them off for the moment and take a minute to observe that in 2016, the left-wing populist Reich and the socialist Bernie Sanders both sounded pretty Trumpish on Trump’s key issues: trade and immigration. Reich again:
Democrats have occupied the White House for 16 of the last 24 years, and for four of those years had control of both houses of Congress. But in that time they failed to reverse the decline in working-class wages and economic security. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama ardently pushed for free trade agreements without providing millions of blue-collar workers who thereby lost their jobs means of getting new ones that paid at least as well.
. . . Now Americans have rebelled by supporting someone who wants to fortify America against foreigners as well as foreign-made goods. The power structure understandably fears that Trump’s isolationism will stymie economic growth. But most Americans couldn’t care less about growth because for years they have received few of its benefits, while suffering most of its burdens in the forms of lost jobs and lower wages.
In 2016, before his handlers yanked on his leash, Senator Sanders was nearly indistinguishable from Trump on the subject of “open borders.”
There is one reason that unionized industrial workers might have migrated toward the Republicans, joining the purported “party of the rich” — they’re rich. Mitt Romney once did the nation a great service (and did his presidential campaign a great disservice) by pointing out that one important dividing line in American politics is the one separating the people who pay federal income taxes from the people who don’t. About half the country — the higher-earning half — pays some federal income tax, and about half the country — the lower-earning half — has no federal income-tax liability at all or has a negative liability thanks to the Earned Income-Tax Credit. (It is not the case that lower-income Americans pay no taxes — it is the case that they pay no federal income tax, which is probably more important politically than it is economically, which was, of course, Romney’s point.) Those factory workers don’t make Mitt Romney money, but a lot of them make bass-boat money; a great many of them are on the right side of the income curve, which is the income-tax-paying side.
That is true for both union and non-union workers. Toyota, for instance, estimates that its U.S. non-union production workers make about 58 percent more than the average U.S. salary. GM workers represented by the UAW make about the same wage as their non-union Toyota counterparts, averaging around $30 an hour. (GM has far higher labor costs, driven by splendid health-care benefits and an expensive pension system.) Highly skilled union workers (for example, those working in nuclear-power plants) can earn decently into six figures. A union manufacturing worker married to another union manufacturing worker won’t have a household income in the top 1 percent but very well may be in the top 10 percent.
So, then, might “working people” mean “people with modest incomes”? Maybe, but the reality is more complex even when construed according to that simplistic criterion.
We like to think of things in linear terms: the richer you are, the more education you have, etc. In reality, things are not linear but lumpy. A lot of very poor people are Democrats. So are a lot of very rich people. For instance, Wall Street bigs are mostly Democrats — you think a guy with a master’s degree and an $800,000-a-year job in Manhattan, a manicure, and a big tuition bill to pay at Greenwich Country Day is going to hitch his wagon to the daft star of Marjorie Taylor Greene? That isn’t real life. Of course, no sensible person expects Elizabeth Warren to understand such complexities, because no sensible person expects Elizabeth Warren to understand anything more complicated than misrepresenting her ethnicity for professional purposes.
(“Faculty of color,” Harvard called her. Technically true — see: PANTONE 11-0602 TCX.)
If you look at the data compiled by Pew, you’ll see that while the average Republican voter has a higher income than the average Democratic voter (as of 2018), the biggest difference is not at the happy tippy-top but at the miserable bottom. Republicans enjoy a six-point advantage when it comes to workers earning more than $100,000 a year. By way of comparison, Democrats enjoy a 16-point advantage among voters earning less than $25,000 a year. Put another way, the share of Democratic voters earning less than $25,000 a year is more than twice the share of Republican voters in that income group.
Where the Democrats have one great advantage is not among working people but among non-working people, or people with only marginal and desultory employment. Receiving or having received food stamps or other poverty-related benefits correlates pretty strongly with voting Democratic. People who receive benefits under three or more government programs tend to vote Democratic and tend to fall disproportionately into demographic groups that vote Democratic — African Americans and unmarried women.
Work really is an enormously important variable. High-income households overwhelmingly have two full-time workers in them, while the lowest-income households have on average fewer than one full-time worker in them. Poverty in the United States is much less a working-class problem than a non-working-class problem. The mere fact that many poor people are not working does not necessarily mean that we should be skeptical toward providing them with assistance — some of them cannot work, and in some cases it is better that they do not work — but it should influence how we think about the design and structure of welfare programs and what our long-term economic expectations about them are going to be.
The Democrats are big with the very poor and big with college-educated government workers — i.e., the party of people who are enrolled in welfare programs and the people who administer them.
Things get complicated at the top, too, because it matters how you draw the lines. The $100,000-and-up club comprises the highest-earning 31 percent or so of U.S. households, and they lean Republican. But the very wealthy are less predictably Republican. For example, Americans earning more than $220,000 a year (the wealthiest 4 percent) in 2012 supported Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, part of a continuing trend of the very wealthy leaning Democrat. Vox isn’t exactly stuffed with Trumpists, either, but here is the headline: “Democrats are replacing Republicans as the preferred party of the very wealthy.” Why that is the case is pretty straightforward: It is not that a bunch of rich Republicans suddenly decided to become Democrats — it is that who gets to be rich has changed dramatically in the past couple of decades, with the rich-guy demographic window shifting in the Democrats’ advantage. Being rich is less correlated with being white and male than it once was, and much more correlated with being highly educated and living in a coastal metro. Urban college graduates vote for Democrats — which is why the first thing Elizabeth Warren wants to offer “working people” is college-loan forgiveness — a policy that not only disproportionately but overwhelmingly benefits higher-income Americans. Covid-era loan forbearance already has provided something on the order of $200 billion in benefits to college borrowers, most of them higher-income.
Where you live matters a great deal, too. It will surprise exactly no one to learn that the majority of voters earning more than $100,000 a year very much prefer Democrats to Republicans in California, Maryland, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, while the $100,000+ voters are more R than D in Texas, Indiana, Ohio, and Tennessee.
“Democrats are the party of working people,” Senator Warren claims. That statement is, in the most charitable reading, so imprecise as to be useless. Better to have written: “The Democrats are the party of relatively high-income college graduates, especially the ones living in relatively high-income communities, which is why we are leading with student-loan forgiveness rather than something that blue-collar factory workers care about.”
But that doesn’t have quite the same punch in the New York Times, does it?
Words About Words
A teacher writes: “I find in print and conversation that the use of the word slave is being replaced by enslaved people. I think it adds a more human touch to this most miserable of topics. I find myself using it more and more in class discussion. What is your take on this?”
I think the sentiment — to emphasize the humanity of the captive workers who were bought and sold as property — is an admirable one. But other than the old engineering convention (which has itself become controversial), I cannot think of any instance in which the word slave would refer to anything other than a person. To write enslaved person to my eye is like writing English professor person or soldier person or poet person. A slave is a person — that is why slavery was and is a horror.
Enslaved person also sounds a little antiseptic to my ear. Jay Nordlinger often refers to Robert Conquest’s term “nonconsensual societies” — I understand the point of it, but I think something like tyranny would do better. Slavery is a savage thing, and it should have a blunt, ugly name. There’s no way to nice it up, and no cause to.
Homogenous is a word, but it probably isn’t the word you want. The word you want is homogeneous, which is pronounced like a rude but admiring description of Oscar Wilde. I pronounce this one wrong all the time, as a few Mad Dogs & Englishmen listeners have been kind enough to point out in 60 or 70 emails. Homogenous is an old technical biological term that has been supplanted by homologous. Homogeneous, meaning “of the same kind,” is related to homogenized, which has both a literal meaning (as with milk) and a more metaphorical one. The pronunciation of homogenized is close to homogenous, which is probably where the error comes from. The noun form of homogeneous is homogeneity; the noun form of homogenous is homogeny. I use the word probably 200 times in The Smallest Minority, but I still pronounce it the wrong way when I am not thinking about it.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
Home and Away
You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here.
I recommended The Chosen, the crowded-funded series about the life of Jesus and the early days of Christianity, last week. I’ll repeat the recommendation here. But I will also add a question for readers who have seen it: How do you think The Chosen would be received by a non-Christian audience? I think there are two kinds of non-Christian audiences: those who don’t care about Christianity and those who hate it. In a weird way, I think the haters might be more interested in The Chosen, because they are simply more interested in Christianity, even though their interest is a negative one. I think this is similar in a way to the Satanic and quasi-Satanic theatrics one sees all over our culture — sometimes purely for entertainment purposes, as with the band Slayer, and sometimes offered with more seriousness. Christian ideas and the Christian (particularly Catholic) aesthetic still dominate Western civilization to such an extent that even Christianity’s enemies offer works that are almost exclusively derivative of Christianity or conceived in reaction to it. They have no real substance of their own. Andres Serrano made “Piss Christ” because nobody would care very much about “Piss Joe Biden” or “Piss Elon Musk.” In that sense, the upside-down-cross guys evince a certain backhanded respect for Christianity, while the nice, New Age–y Westerners who profess to admire Buddhism while reducing that complex body of analysis into a style of interior decoration offer a much worse insult than anything the goat-heads-and-pentagrams set has ever dreamt of. In the long term, indifference is the sharper sword — and dull accommodation the deadliest weapon of them all.
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The Problem Is Ordinary Killers, Not Exotic Guns
Finding a really nice classic Mustang is not always easy and is never cheap, and, for years, a handful of very committed car enthusiasts have been making an end-run around the classic-car market and the restoration industry both by more or less building entirely new cars from the parts catalogue. This is something that is a lot easier to do with very popular classics such as the Mustang than it would be with (alas!) the 1966 Volvo P1800 I very stupidly bought as a broke college student. In reality, building a new Mustang from the catalogue entails a lot more than ordering the parts and putting them together — there is a reason most cars are built in factories rather than in artisans’ workshops. But you can do it, if you really want to.
You can build a gun from scratch, too, if you have the inclination and the skills. Contrary to what a great many people seem to think, there isn’t any law against it. There never has been, at least at the federal level. There are many kits you can buy to build old-style black-powder muskets and Kentucky rifles — a relatively easy project whose main challenges are related to woodworking rather than mechanics. But you can build sophisticated modern firearms, too. If you are a skilled machinist and have the right equipment, you can build one entirely from scratch. If that is too much for you, then you can build one from commercially available parts that simply need to be assembled — but you will have to pass a federal background check when purchasing the “receiver,” which is what the ATF considers a firearm when it is complete or almost complete.
The distinction between firearm and firearm parts is necessary in that firearm parts often are replaced or modified. For example, regular shooters eventually have to replace their rifles’ barrels, which simply wear out. Buying a new barrel for an old rifle is not the same as buying a whole new rifle, legally or practically. Likewise, some shooters will change the stocks or “furniture” on their weapons, change the grips or sights, upgrade certain mechanical parts (especially triggers), etc. At its simplest, a firearm is just a length of pipe that is closed at one end. Because it would be impractical to classify all of these the various parts as firearms under federal law, a more sophisticated distinction has to be made.
A gray area — and here I mean a political gray area; the law at this time is reasonably clear — is the issue of receivers that are sold incomplete. A receiver becomes a firearm under federal law only when it has reached a certain stage of completion. Finishing an unfinished receiver is not like snapping together LEGO bricks — it usually requires some basic machining equipment and skills, though in some cases 3D printing can be used as a workaround. A firearm made from an unfinished receiver, like one made entirely from scratch, never has to go through the background check required by a retail sale, because, as far as federal law is concerned, there never was a retail sale of a firearm at all — only the sale of some firearm parts that were used in the production of a homemade firearm.
These homemade guns, which do not have serial numbers and which require no background check to acquire, are what is meant — purportedly meant, anyway — by the scary-sounding and imprecise term “ghost guns,” the latest terror totem of the anti-gun lobby. I write purportedly because many of the firearms reported as “ghost guns” are not homemade firearms at all but ordinary commercially sold firearms that have had their serial numbers removed or obscured. As often is the case when it comes to crime in the United States, good national data are difficult to find because of inconsistent reporting practices across jurisdictions.
When I first started reading about the upsurge in “ghost guns,” my first thought was to wonder why a criminal would go to the trouble of relying on a process that involves drill presses and mechanical skill rather than do what U.S. criminals have been doing for generations; i.e., using stolen guns or guns bought in criminal transactions. As it turns out, that is pretty much what our criminals are still doing, though some cities and states report significant increases in ghost-gun seizures. There have been a few murders involving ghost guns, and those cases predictably have received a disproportionate amount of attention. To give you an idea of the situation on the ground, the gun-control group Everytown conducted a review of federal “ghost gun” cases — 114 of them over a decade, a number that should tell you something — and found that there were 2,513 such firearms connected to criminal activity. But — and these are Everytown’s findings, not mine — the crime associated with those 2,513 firearms was illegal manufacturing or dealing in 2,200 cases, not robbery or murder or assault. Put another way, almost all of the crimes associated with so-called ghost guns were, in Everytown’s review of the data, the crime of simply possessing such a weapon in the first place or selling one.
That is not surprising. Consider a point of comparison: Contrary to what many people think, it is legal to own a fully automatic weapon in the United States, provided it was manufactured before 1986, though the process of acquiring one is closely regulated and the supply of such weapons is relatively small. Almost all of the crimes associated with legally owned fully automatic weapons in the United States are violations of firearms regulations. The number of murders committed with legally owned fully automatic weapons in the United States in the past 80 years or so could be counted on your fingers. (And, in every case that I have found, those crimes were committed not by civilian owners of machine guns but by police and military personnel using service weapons. It is possible I have missed one or two.) The same is true for many other exotic armaments and accessories, such as sound suppressors, which also are legal to own and increasingly common, especially among the very busy hunters working to keep the feral hog population under control here in Texas.
(The fear of “silencers” is a largely American thing probably driven by Hollywood; in many European countries, suppressors are sold over the counter, and some European firing ranges go as far as to require them as a courtesy to other shooters. I envy this every time I am at the range next to a guy firing a .458 Winchester magnum rifle with a muzzle brake, a device that reduces recoil but makes a firearm about twice as loud. Apparently, my corner of Texas is rife with guys who are dealing with problem elephants.)
For most periods in U.S. history — and ours is no different — the most common firearm used in a crime is whatever the most common handgun of the day happens to be: A generation or two ago, it was .38 revolvers, and now it is 9mm pistols. We spend a great deal of time (and political energy) worrying about so-called assault rifles, which are used in murders only exceedingly rarely — all rifles put together, from AR-type firearms to Elmer Fudd deer rifles, account for about 3 percent of the firearms used in murders. We also are for some (probably cinematic) reason preoccupied with particular unusual weapons that are seldom if ever used in violent crimes: For example, California went bananas a few years ago over .50-caliber rifles, which are now banned in the state. I have been able to find no case in which a .50-caliber rifle was used in a murder in California, and their use in violent crimes is pretty rare everywhere else. (Don’t take my word: Check the Violence Policy Center’s review.) There is a pretty good reason for that, of course: There’s a very nice .50-caliber rifle on the shelf of my local firearms dealer — it is almost six feet long, weighs almost 50 pounds, and costs $13,000.
The more you know about the ballistic facts on the ground, the sillier these scaremongering stories sound. The anti-gun lobby talks in fearful terms about the so-called military-style rifles available to the American buying public, but there are some pretty common hunting rifles that fire cartridges that are five tosix times as powerful as the standard 5.56mm used in AR-pattern rifles. This makes perfect sense when you consider that it takes a lot more oomph to kill a Cape buffalo or a bull elk than it does to kill a Russian, which is what the 5.56mm round was designed to do. (Hence its full formal name, 5.56×45mm NATO.) The gun-grabbers who proclaim that they have no interest in taking away granddad’s deer rifle are being pretty silly, from an empirical point of view.
The supposed allure of “ghost guns” is that they are “untraceable.” Which they are — like pretty much every other firearm in the United States. We do not maintain a national gun registry, and, in spite of what you see on television, there isn’t really any such thing as a “registered” or “unregistered” firearm as a matter of federal law and the laws of almost all the states. When police find a firearm that they believe to have been used in a crime, they can, if they choose, consult federal records that will show them which federally licensed firearms dealer sold that gun. Criminals are not as a class of people very intelligent, but even so there are not very many who: (1) are eligible to buy a gun legally from a dealer; (2) actually do so; and (3) leave that gun at the scene of a crime. But that is the only way in most cases that government records could be used to trace a gun from a crime scene to its owner. (Most cases: A couple of states maintain legally questionable databases that might provide more information.) Most firearms change hands at least once — and often several times — before they end up at a crime scene or in the hands of investigators. The thing about career criminals is — they’re career criminals. They don’t buy criminal implements from federally regulated providers. In many cases, they can’t: A large share of our murders are committed by people who already have at least one felony conviction.
Once you start looking at the statistics, you’ll notice a lot of small percentages and weak correlations — a tiny share of “assault rifles” used in murders, Hollywood-style machine guns practically nowhere in evidence, “ghost guns” more common than I would have expected (9 percent of the firearms confiscated by police in Philadelphia, for example) but still pretty rare, etc.
Where you will see much stronger correlations is in who is shooting the guns: About 90 percent of murder suspects in cities such as New York and Chicago have prior arrest histories; in Charlotte, half of the murder suspects have had prior gun charges dismissed, which is a genuine scandal; the No. 1 thing people being convicted of violent felonies have in common is a prior arrest for a violent felony, which is the case for two-thirds of violent felons.
(For context, be aware that the majority of murder victims are criminal offenders, too, a finding that has held true in the big cities for half a century. A 2012 survey of New York murder victims found that 20 percent of them were on probation or parole or had an active arrest warrant, 10 percent were confirmed gang members, 71 percent had prior arrests, etc. Only one in five male murder victims in New York did not have a prior arrest.)
If prior offenders make up 90 percent of our murderers, and “ghost guns” are involved in less than 1 percent of our murders, why are we concentrating on the “ghost guns” rather than on the murderers?
The tripartite answer is politics, theater, and cowardice.
The Wild Side of Inflation
Lou Reed’s New York came out in 1989, and it announced the beginning of the end of the 1980s. (The 1980s would persist musically until 1991 and Nirvana’s Nevermind.) New York is typical Lou Reed territory — addiction, abuse, poverty, urban decay — with a new and unexpected element: nostalgia. “I’ll take Manhattan in a garbage bag / with Latin written on it that says: ‘It’s hard to give a sh** these days’ / Manhattan’s sinking like a rock / into the filthy Hudson, what a shock / They wrote a book about it, they said it was like ancient Rome.” But something already was changing in New York, which was at that time only five years away from electing Rudy Giuliani and becoming the greatest urban comeback story the nation had ever seen.
One of the songs on New York is a much-maligned haves-and-have-nots anthem, “Strawman,” which I very much like. But it is a song that needs to be adjusted for inflation.
“Does anybody need another million-dollar movie?” Reed asks. “Does anybody need another million-dollar star?” That $1 million was a lowball figure even then, but $1 million budgets and paydays are positively quaint by contemporary standards: The biggest film of 1989 was Batman, which cost about $48 million to make, $5 million of which went to pay its star, Michael Keaton. Christian Bale was paid something on the order of $30 million in the $250 million Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. (Robert Pattinson’s modest $3 million payday for the most recent Batman film has been the subject of some perplexed commentary in Hollywood.) Hollywood action figures such as Dwayne Johnson are not million-dollar stars, but billionaire-adjacent stars. (You won’t find many if any actors among the ranks of Hollywood billionaires, but you’ll find a fair number with hundreds of millions of dollars.) The rich get richer.
But the line that really makes me laugh in “Strawman” is, “Does anybody need a $60,000 car?” In 2022, an optioned-up Ford Super Duty pickup — that great emblem of blue-collar success — can cross the $100,000 mark, while a top-of-the-line Mercedes sedan is a bit more than twice that. A $60,000 car in 2022 is a decent Volvo station wagon. As a New Yorker, Reed probably did not have much of a feel for car budgets, though he did once make a commercial for Honda scooters.
Lou Reed fretted about the questionable necessity of a “billion-dollar rocket.” I wonder what he would have made of the $2.5 billion — privately built and privately owned — rockets of 2022.
But not everything on that record is an exercise in lyrical anthropology. Unhappily, New York is once again starting to look like New York.
Some things really never change. In the run up to the American Revolution — and in many other disputes with monarchs over the years — it was conventional for dissidents to blame the king’s ministers, rather than the king himself, for crimes, tyranny, and misgovernance. It was, in fact, a maxim of English law that “the king can do no wrong,” a legal principle cited unsuccessfully by Charles I right before they cut his head off. This is a prime example of the idolatry at the center of royal politics — if the king is God’s anointed, then his crimes must reflect poorly upon the Almighty. As Donald Trump disappoints his supporters by doing the most predictable thing in the world — spurning actual conservatives to support another television personality, Dr. Oz, in the Pennsylvania Senate race — true believers in the 21st-century United States are faced with the same troubling issue as their medieval forebears: How can the anointed do wrong? As with earlier royalists, they have set upon the same solution: Blame the ministers! Erick Erickson, who remarkably went from boycotting Trump as a “fascist” to actively supporting him, writes of the recent shenanigans: “It’s like Donald Trump’s staff is sabotaging Trump by convincing him to make the worst possible endorsements.” Not the king, but his wicked ministers!
That is not the thinking of a citizen — that is the thinking of a subject.
Or a cult member.
Words about Words
A phrase that seems to have fallen out of use except by attentive fans of the movie Pulp Fiction: “according to Hoyle.” In Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece, the mob trigger Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson, who at some point got a name upgrade from his earlier credits as plain ol’ “Sam Jackson”) witnesses what he believes to be a miracle, and vows to amend his life. Challenged by his doubtful colleague, he explains: “Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.” This is sound on both literary and theological grounds, I think.
Edmond Hoyle was an 18th-century Englishman who tutored the aristocracy on whist, a card game enjoyed by the high-society crowd. He wrote a little pamphlet on the subject, A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist, which became so popular that a bookseller paid him an unusually large sum of money for the rights to the work, and then paid him an additional fee to autograph copies to distinguish them from unauthorized piracies. (That detail is particularly poignant for any writer who has ever known the pain of discovering an autographed copy of one of his books in a secondhand bookshop.) A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist was considered authoritative for more than a century, until the rules of the game were revised — and, as such, “according to Hoyle” came to mean “in accordance with the most widely accepted authority.”
Furthermore . . .
A reader inquires about my use of the phrase “a long jeremiad” last week. “Isn’t that redundant?” he asks, in that jeremiad is defined as a “long, mournful complaint or lamentation; a list of woes.”
Guilty as charged. I’ll send in the $20 bounty for redundancies as soon as I can get the cash out of the ATM machine.
The Judas Priest song notwithstanding, the expression is, “You’ve got another think coming,” not “You’ve got another thing coming.” It’s another way of saying, “Think again.” E.g.: “If you think that Dr. Oz is going to be anything other than embarrassing as a senator, then you’ve got another think coming.”
Sidebar: I think it usually is preferable to write out “then” in “if . . . then” formulations such as the one above, rather than to let the “then” be implicit, as we often do. “Then” is not technically an according-to-Hoyle coordinating conjunction, but it should be treated as one in such usages.
Also: “Judas priest!” as a mild profanity is of relatively recent coinage, dating to the early 20th century. It was used in place of “Jesus Christ!” to avoid taking the Name in vain. Possibly influenced by “Judas tree,” Cercis siliquastrum, the species from which Judas Iscariot is supposed to have hanged himself.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
Home and Away
You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here.
Pancake will eat the rosemary. The marigolds she only rolls in.
It is years old, but I have only recently got around to watching The Chosen, the crowdfunded series about the life of Jesus. It is very good, and often moving. It is particularly clever — and effective — in situating the Gospel in the private domestic lives of the Biblical characters. Peter is not some holy man who is waiting around expecting the Messiah — he is a fisherman with financial problems and a tax bill he cannot pay, worried about disappointing his wife more than about being thrown in prison over his debt. The social dynamic of the wedding at Cana (the groom’s parents are socially inferior to the bride’s insufferably snooty family and fear public humiliation) is entirely recognizable in our own time. Some substantial liberties are taken with the Biblical account, of course, but these are dramatically useful and serve the spirit of the enterprise.
When an exasperated (and, up to that point, unnamed) wine merchant at the wedding is irritated and perplexed by being told to fill the empty wine jars with water, he says: “From the instructions you have provided, I see no logical solution to the problem.” Jesus, with a little sigh, replies: “It’s going to be like that sometimes, Thomas.”
The tone is distinctly Evangelical, though not overbearingly so, and in addition to being a version of the Gospel story, it is simultaneously something that would have been difficult to explain to an earlier generation of Christians: a Protestant love-letter to Jewish piety.
With Good Friday approaching, do yourself a great favor and read Father Richard John Neuhaus’s Death on a Friday Afternoon if you haven’t read it before — or if you have, for that matter. It is a book that is not going to stop being good or true.
This is Holy Week, and, while I will not be taking any time off, it is a good time to remember my friend Jay Nordlinger’s oft-repeated observation that journalism, from the Latin diurnalis (“daily”), is a thing of a day. History takes a longer view, but there is still another, much longer view, that has a claim on our attention.