Politics & Policy

The President as Priest-King

Theerapat Prayurasiddh, permanent secretary of the Thai Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives greets Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun and Princess Bajrakitiyabha during the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony in central Bangkok, Thailand, May 12, 2017. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

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‘Why Do We Need a King?’

In the matter of monarchy, Thailand has made one critical improvement over the United Kingdom: Whereas the British imported their ridiculous royal family from Germany, the clever Thais have taken the much more sensible step of exporting their ghastly monarchy to the same country, with the king, Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, a.k.a. Rama X, having abandoned his homeland, famous for its beautiful beaches and gorgeous police state, and set up housekeeping with his extensive harem at the Grand Hotel Sonnenbichl in the ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, near the Austrian border. It’s a famous spot: The funny little fellow with the funny little mustache presided over the winter Olympics there in 1936.

(One might be tempted to think of Garmisch-Partenkirchen as the Eurotrash Aspen, except that the Eurotrash Aspen is Aspen.)

The absentee monarch is an avid cyclist, and avid for . . . other pursuits: The Economist quotes a source close to the king describing his daily schedule: “Bike, f***, eat. He does only those three things.” No doubt the Bavarian alps provide interesting and rewarding opportunities for all three. Try the Alpen Käsefondue.

Vajiralongkorn is one of those entertaining throwback monarchs, one who promoted as the military’s “chief air marshal” his splendidly well-attended poodle, Foo Foo. And he apparently has a special air-force unit composed exclusively of his various sexual partners.

Very amusing stuff, if you don’t have to live with it.

But the Thais do have to live with it. The country’s notoriously strict lèse majesté law makes it a serious crime — up to 15 years in prison — to criticize the monarchy. And, like other police states, Thailand conflates criticism of the government with sedition, and uses trumped-up prosecutions for non-political crimes as an instrument of political coercion. Like any number of left-wing utopias — the Soviet Union, Cuba — Thailand recruits the medical profession into the service of political repression, and critics of the king end up locked up in psychiatric hospitals. (The American psychological and psychiatric organizations’ attempts to classify certain kinds of political dissent — the kind you might read about in National Review, for example — as a form of mental illness should be understood in that context. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.) Recent protests have been met with arrests, water cannon, and an emergency decree forbidding any gathering of more than five people, but the protests have continued. News organizations that have reported about them are being subjected to persecution.

Even so, when news broke that the king had relocated to Bavaria, millions of Thais took to Twitter to ask the same question: “Why do we need a king?”

They don’t, of course. Lots of countries, including this one, have got along just fine for a good long time without so much as a viscountess, much less a king. But H. sap. is a barely improved chimpanzee, and the desire for a king is imprinted very deeply into human beings, who crave something to which to submit. So they will have a king. “We want a king over us!” the Israelites demanded. “Then we will be like all the other nations.” Samuel warned them:

This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.

Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.

He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.

He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.

He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.

Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use.

He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.

When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.

(What, a tyrant who takes only a tenth of your income? Mirabile dictu!)

Why would the ancient Israelites — or anybody else — want a king?

The king is first and foremost an object of idolatry. Idols are usually familiar things, even household things. They take the shape of people or animals, or other objects one commonly encounters. We do not go out into the world looking for things to idolize but idolize that which we already know. Idols are a way of making abstract and slippery things more concrete and tractable. Writing in The Golden Bough, James George Frazer instructs his reader not to sneer at the primitive man and his quaint superstitions, but to understand them as the first blindly groping effort of our species to articulate what we would now understand as a product of science: a set of stable, predictable rules governing how the universe behaves.

But we had (and have) a hard time thinking in incorporeal terms, so we fixate on the things we understand most intimately: people and animals, especially domesticated animals. (Remember, it was a golden calf the Israelites worshiped, not a representation of a wild animal.) We secular-minded moderns are hardly immune to that: Look around Washington, and you will not see monuments and memorials to liberty and democracy, but a city named for a man filled with shrines to men: Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., the fallen in Vietnam. There is no denying the religious character of these depictions: Constantino Brumidi’s frescos decorating the Capitol dome bear the very forthright title The Apotheosis of George Washington.

The conception of the king as a god on Earth, or as god’s representative on Earth, is so widespread as to be nearly universal: Egyptian pharaohs and Japanese emperors are gods or god-men descended from gods; Roman emperors were deified not only after death but during their lifetimes, receiving worship in the temples; the British monarch is the head of the national church; the Chinese have their “mandate of heaven”; and Sarah Huckabee Sanders insists that Donald Trump is God’s own special anointed leader, a belief shared by about half of Evangelicals.

The American presidency has always had a sacramental aspect. But, in recent years, the sacramental and liturgical understanding of the presidency and the president has crowded out the main character of the office: chief administrator of one branch of the federal government. As the president evolves into a kind of semi-divine personification of the nation, normal politics becomes impossible, because we are not fighting about taxes or farm subsidies but instead are engaged in a war for the “soul of the country.” Joe Biden insists his campaign is “about winning the heart and, yes, the soul of America”; Donald Trump’s campaign ads promise to “Save America’s Soul.”

Elizabeth Dias, in the New York Times, limns some of the history of that rhetoric:

The soul of the nation is “a very ancient trope that is revived when all sorts of cultural ideas are in flux,” Eric Gregory, professor of religion at Princeton University, said. “It reveals something about the current political conversation, in times of crisis and change, a corruption of sickness.”

Often we stress systems and institutions, he said, but in the Trump era there has been a return to ancient concepts about the welfare of the city, where politics is about right relationships. “In ancient politics the health of society had a lot to do with the virtue of the ruler,” he said.

It is for this reason that we believe that the country cannot be put right if the wrong man is president — and about 40 percent of the country, maybe more, is going to believe that the wrong man is president at any given time. Worshipers of this or that tribal totem feel themselves to be excluded, degraded, and humiliated if the highest elected office in the land is held by a member of the rival clan. The sacral king is the vessel in which the tribe as a whole worships itself — and America is no longer one tribe but two.

And so, in that respect, we are not so different from the Israelites who cried out for a king. As the Lord explains it to Samuel: “They have not rejected you — they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” People are born terrified and live much of their lives naked in the darkness, and they are going to worship something: that dopey Thai king conducting a yearlong orgy in his alpine quarantine, Harry and Meghan, or even something as debased and tawdry as the American presidency.

Words About Words

In the final season of The Wire, a group of editors at an ailing newspaper stand around smoking cigarettes and talking about their favorite newspaper clichés.

You ever notice how a “mother of four” is always catching hell? Murder? Hit-and-run? Burnt up in a rowhouse fire? Swindled by bigamists?

Tough gig, “mother of four.”

“Innocent bystander” is worse. He’s always getting the short end.

Not a lot of them around anymore. Not a lot of innocents anymore, you ask me.

You know who there’s less of? “Statuesque blondes.” You don’t read about “statuesque blondes” in the newspaper anymore. Buxom ones, neither. They’re like a lost race.

I thought about that when looking at a weekend New York Times article on the actress Sigourney Weaver. The headline in the magazine is slightly different from the homepage copy on the Internet, which is normal: Display copy, as it is known, is written slightly differently for different contexts. I did notice that the word statuesque had been added.

Statuesque literally means resembling a statue. It is sometimes used merely as a synonym for “attractive” — and I cannot recall having read the word used to refer to anything other than a woman — but it also carries the connotation of dignified and tall. So, appropriate for the six-foot-tall Sigourney Weaver. It is kind of a funny word, to my ear, though it makes sense in that, unlike paintings or photographs, statues have volume rather than merely representing volume in a two-dimensional space. I also suspect that it calls to mind the word stately, reinforcing its sense of dignified.

State, statue, status, and statute all are derived from the Latin stare, to stand.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A reader asks which to use: that having been said, that being said, or that said? Another reader writes to object to the phrase in all its variations as mere throat-clearing: Of course that has been said, you big dope — you just said it!

Each of the three variations works fine grammatically, and I am sympathetic to the categorical objection to that being said. That being said, I use it from time to time. It is a more formal version of but and a less formal version of the foregoing notwithstanding, an acknowledgment that what comes after may not necessarily follow from what came before and may even contradict it or seem to contradict it. For example: “A quarantine is a reasonable measure in an epidemic. That being said, it is easy to overreact and to abuse emergency powers.”

I slightly prefer that said, which is nice and brisk and compact, but it would not come naturally to me in speech.

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Home and Away

Words still mean things, at least in the New York Post:

In 1984, George Orwell introduced the term “doublespeak.” In the Amy Coney Barrett hearings, Democrats have perfected it.

The Democrats are in a bad way, and two things stand immediately in the path of their political agenda: the Supreme Court and the English language. To destroy one, they must destroy the other.

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. I think this is the best of my work, and I hope you will enjoy it.

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In Closing

I sometimes write that Americans would love free-market capitalism but for their experience with banks, health-insurance companies, airlines, and cable providers. But what it took to make happy regulators of Republicans was Twitter and Facebook. Those two companies have done their shareholders and their users a grave disservice with their ham-fisted attempts to squelch that New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s emails. The Republican response to this abuse is probably going to be dumb as a matter of policy, but not nearly so dumb as a matter of politics as what Twitter and Facebook have just done.

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How America Became the World’s Brain

On the Princeton University campus in 2013. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Welcome to “The Tuesday,” a newsletter about politics, language, and culture. They don’t give out Nobel prizes for newsletters, but you don’t get into the newsletter game for the glory.

The Intellectual Superpower

One of the unkind stereotypes of Americans is that we are an un-intellectual and even anti-intellectual people. Like many enduring stereotypes, this one has some basis in truth — whatever has led the country to a choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden for its highest elected office, it is not that Americans are thinking too hard about things. Europeans sneer at the famous American lack of facility with foreign languages, and Americans traveling abroad often are self-conscious about that, fearful of embodying the Ugly American.

There is much that is perverse, ugly, and illiterate in our national intellectual life. But, at the same time, we are the world’s intellectual superpower. This year’s Nobel prizes offer a case in point: the prize for medicine went to a three-man group, two of them Americans; the physics prize went to a three-man group, one American; the chemistry prize was shared by a French woman and an American woman; the literature prize was awarded to an American poet (a thing which exists!), Louise Glück; the peace prize was awarded to the U.N. World Food Program, an agency currently run by a former Republican governor of South Carolina, David Beasley; the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was awarded to two American economists working at Stanford.

Every Nobel prize in 2020 was awarded either to an American, a team of Americans, or a team with an American member. Not bad for a group of people comprising 4 percent of the world’s population.

How did that happen?

For one thing, American institutions are terrific at identifying and cultivating extraordinary intellectual talents. Conservatives spend a great deal of time sneering at our institutions of higher education because there are too many Froot-Loops and crackpots in the English department at Bryn Mawr (where the current course offerings include “Colonizing Girlhoods: L. M. Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder” and “Lesbian Immortal”), but these credentialed mediocrities are going to land somewhere — the U.S. military is not manned exclusively by heroes, our sentimental rhetoric notwithstanding. Last week, the New York Times published a very interesting essay titled, “Everything I Know About Elite America I Learned From ‘Fresh Prince’ and ‘West Wing,’” written by a doctoral student at Cambridge, Rob Henderson, who is a product of the American foster-care system. His path forward in life was very like that of Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance: service in the military and then undergraduate studies at Yale. From Henderson’s military experience, he learned the value of higher education (those “who had college credits or a degree were typically promoted faster, and supervisors often urged subordinates to take night classes”), and from television, he learned the value of elite education.

Princeton is creating a new residential college to replace the one named for Woodrow Wilson (now persona non grata at the university he once ran) with a large gift from Mellody Hobson of Ariel Investments. Hobson, a black woman, grew up in a poor, single-mother household in Chicago (poor here meaning frequently evicted or without electricity) but found a place at an elite Catholic prep school and then one at Princeton. After Princeton, she went to work for Ariel, which was founded by another Princeton graduate. She thrived at the firm — she is unusual in having worked all of her post-college life at the same company — and ended up sitting on the boards of several big companies. (She also married George Lucas — the rich get richer, and sometimes much richer.) Her gift to Princeton will help to ensure that the opportunities that she enjoyed will be available to others, including those who, like her, come from modest or impoverished backgrounds.

Henderson’s story and Hobson’s are excellent examples of how remarkably effective our elite institutions are at finding and cultivating unusual talents. There are many like them: Princeton helped a young man born to a teenaged mother in Albuquerque, Jeff Bezos, on to a reasonably successful business career.

The Ivy League is not the exclusive preserve of the upper classes. This is not a question of fairness but a matter of brute fact: Most people do not have the intellectual gifts to benefit from the best of a Princeton or Yale education, and they cannot acquire those capacities any more than a short basketball aficionado can will himself into greater height. Gifts are unequally and unfairly distributed. There is no way — none yet known — to give those kinds of gifts to people who do not have them. It wasn’t Lang Lang’s brutal practice schedule — six hours a day at five years old — that made him the musician he is. The work is necessary but not in itself sufficient. The role of elite institutions of higher education is to locate those with the gifts and the inclination to do the work, to cultivate them, and to concentrate them socially: Great advances most often happen within networks and within teams, our romantic notions of the lone genius laboring in his private workshop notwithstanding.

The United States as a whole acts in a similar way when it comes to highly talented immigrants. Elon Musk came to the United States to attend an Ivy League university (Penn) and came to California to pursue a doctorate in physics at Stanford. (He famously quit after his second day to pursue business ideas.) Microsoft’s Satya Nadella came to the United States to study computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and then took an MBA from Chicago. The most important project of Donald Trump’s administration is not being entrusted to Mike Pence or Lindsey Graham but to a man named Mohamed, the Moroccan-born Belgian-American immigrant Moncef Mohamed Slaoui, formerly of GlaxoSmithKline and currently the chief scientific officer of Operation Warp Speed, the national effort to produce a coronavirus vaccine. The anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Trump administration do not add up to much in the face of a genuine worldwide crisis. If you want to Make America Great Again, here’s Mohamed from Brussels via Harvard and Tufts.

For businesses — and for countries — the gains associated with very high-end human talent have always been enormous (the liberation of British mindpower by the end of feudalism and the emergence of a modern labor market made that nation a superpower in its day) and they are even more dramatic in a globalized world, when relatively small advantages at the margins can produce huge aggregate effects over time. Understanding this and acting on it would fundamentally reorganize not only how we think about education but also how we think about immigration, our various failed efforts to fortify manufacturing and increase manufacturing’s share of the work force, our tax system, and much more. It would also mean a deep rethink of such vague but emotionally charged ideas as nationalism, populism, and inequality.

Instead, our political discourse remains dominated by the politics of resentment and group-interest status-jockeying. And so the world’s intellectual superpower prepares to choose between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, two embodiments of mediocrity — mediocrity at best — as witless and feckless as American public life has ever produced.

Words About Words

“President Trump, First Lady Test Positive for Covid-19,” reads the Wall Street Journal alert. “Trump showing mild symptoms; Pence, second lady tested negative.” In a nation ridden with stupid titles and quasi-titles bestowed upon political figures (Leader McConnell, etc.), second lady may be the most irritating. We have a very un-republican habit of making lifetime titles out of job descriptions, which is why Joe Biden is still called “Vice President Biden” and why John Sununu was, as chief of staff to George H. W. Bush, called “Governor Sununu.” People still refer to George W. Bush and Barack Obama as “Mr. President,” when it should be “Mr. Bush” and “Mr. Obama.”

But at least that title abuse is rooted in something real. The wife of the president of these United States holds no office, performs no constitutional function, and is as a formal matter entirely inconsequential to the public life of the republic. The title “first lady” does not seem to have come into common use until the second half of the 19th century. Martha Washington was not called “the first lady,” though an essay about her published long after her death described her that way, one of the oldest written examples of the term. Legend has it that Dolley Madison was thus hailed at her funeral, but there is no corroborating record. The first president’s wife to be widely described as “the first lady” outside of Washington salons was the admirable Lucy Hayes, whose abolitionism and civil-rights advocacy are a reminder of what the Republican Party once was.

Once the president’s wife was the “first lady,” it was inevitable that every governor’s wife would be the “first lady” of her state, too. The really quite sad neologism “second lady” seems equally inevitable, though, if you ask me, “Mrs. Pence” has more dignity to it.

Rampant Prescriptivism

Last week, I asked you: “Why does ‘One dozen eggs was broken’ sound wrong? Most of you responded with declarations that it is wrong and explanations (of varying accuracy and persuasiveness) about why it is wrong, but none of you offered an account of why it sounds wrong. We commonly use similar expressions of quantity in a similar way: “A half a million dollars was wasted” (Los Angeles Times), “a billion was spent to map the genome” (New York Times), “Of that decline, $330 million was attributable to the negative impact of the pandemic (Wall Street Journal), etc. A billion dollars is as countable as a dozen eggs — it just takes a lot longer.

Some of you insisted that dozen is an adjective, which is at odds with the dictionaries (they have it as principally and sometimes exclusively a noun), though that gets closer to it.

Cardinal numbers (numbers and their synonyms such as dozen and score) are sometimes used as pronouns (“He treated the three of them to a movie”) and sometimes used as determiners (“I met him on one occasion”). Determiners are a funny bunch including definite articles (the), indefinite articles (a, an), demonstratives (these, those), some pronouns, quantifiers (few), numbers, and more.

But, back to the wrong-soundingness. Dozen is singular (the plural is dozens), and it is used in a that sense without sounding strange: Twelve compose a dozen, a dozen comprises twelve. If we can write “a billion dollars was spent” but cannot write “a dozen eggs was broken” without wincing, it is because we think of a billion dollars as a sum, a lump, whereas we think of eggs as individual things, one at a time or by the dozen. Which is why most of us would write, “One thousand eggs were used in that charity pancake breakfast, and one thousand dollars was raised.”

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

It continues to amaze me that Amy Coney Barrett’s textualism — the proposition that judges are constrained by what the law actually says — is being presented as some kind of right-wing extremism. One would think that Judge Barrett’s left-wing adversaries would very much prefer her to follow what the law actually says than to impose her own sensibilities on the nation through judicial fiat. More in the New York Post.

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. I think you either will enjoy it or intensely not enjoy it. Please do buy a copy.

You can hear me talk about the book, and much else, here.

My National Review archive can be found here.

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My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

Today is the feast day of Edward the Confessor, the last of the Wessex kings. I wonder what it was like to have a saint as the head of government — we are in no danger of finding out. But what I mostly like about Edward the Confessor is that those 11th-century guys had such great names: Edward the Confessor was the son of Æthelred the Unready (at 7 a.m. on any given morning, I am Kevin the Unready), was nephew to Edward the Martyr, had a half-brother called Edmund Ironside, and came after the son of Cnut the Great, who was himself the son of Sweyn Forkbeard; his successor lost his crown (and his life) to William the Conqueror. Nobody remembers who the second lady was for any of this.

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White House

Trump, COVID-19, and Karma

President Donald Trump departs Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after treatment for the coronavirus in Bethesda, Md., October 5, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

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Pray for the Sneetches that Persecute You

In the 1980s, the belief that God was inflicting a horrible, deadly disease on people as a punishment for their sins and to make an example of them was the kind of thing trafficked in by the Reverend Jerry Falwell and other low-rent bigots of that kind. Today, it is an idea put forward by, among others, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and the comedy writers of Saturday Night Live.

About 700,000 people in the United States have died of AIDS since the beginning of the ongoing epidemic some 40 years ago; COVID-19, which has been with us less than one year, has killed more than 200,000 Americans, and it is not unlikely that it will outpace, perhaps even far outpace, AIDS in its body count, though it is possible that new treatments or a vaccine will prevent that. One of the people suffering from COVID-19 is a 74-year-old man who is, for the moment, president of these United States. “In a moment that feels biblical,” Dowd writes in her invariably banal New York Times column, “the implacable virus has come to his door.” Imagine having written that about, say, Michel Foucault in 1982 or Freddie Mercury in 1987.

Saturday Night Live reveled in Trump’s being shown up by a partnership of “science and karma,” which is a strange pairing. Alec Baldwin, who frequently appears as Trump on the sketch show (it is his second-best performance in the role of a New York City–based Republican), explained that it was all in good fun, because the White House had insisted that the president was in no real danger and — get this! — Alec Baldwin apparently now takes statements from the Trump administration at face value. That’s no less silly and contradictory than “science and karma” (whatever you think of karma, it is not scientific), but the writers of SNL don’t take such propositions any more seriously than Maureen Dowd does the adjective “biblical,” which she seems to take as a synonym for “poetic” or “ironic.”

About that karma: Westerners cut off from Christianity — and, hence, cut off from the main stream of Western civilization — have an especial weak spot for vaguely understood Eastern concepts. Karma may be the most abused of them, but zen is in the running, too: When I was living in Manhattan, I used a very good housekeeping service that called itself Zen Home Cleaning. I doubt very much that Japan has a Benedictine Maid Service or that China has a Carmelite Laundry. (Trappist brewers, though.) The culturally deracinated may not entirely understand the nature of their predicament, but they cast about instinctively for a paradigm within which to organize their prejudices and sensibilities, and so sundry exotic spiritualisms come into fashion because they provide the illusion of an organizing principle without all that yucky “Thou shalt not!”

Christianity has suffered many insults in the West, but none so great as that inflicted upon Buddhism, an intellectually and spiritually sophisticated religion reduced by the aspirations of the middle-class middlebrow to a style of interior decoration. Walk through an affluent neighborhood in Austin or Palo Alto and see how often the Buddha himself appears as a garden gnome, usually in a yard with one of those signs reading: “In This House, We Believe Love Is Love, Science Is Real, Black Lives Matter, No Human Is Illegal . . . .” The little Buddha in the shrubbery is not the Buddha but an advertisement reading, “In This House, We Are Star-Bellied Sneetches!” It is a marker of self-satisfied self-regard, one that — like any item advertising the tolerance, kindness, or empathy of its owner — tends to be displayed by the most vicious and vindictive kind of person.

Zen is a category of housewares on Amazon, and karma is how American cowards say, “He had it coming.”

No one would think of entering into a serious dispute in science or engineering with no preparation or education (oh, almost no one), but most people feel perfectly at ease shoving their ignorant little noses into religious, ethical, or political issues with which they have no real familiarity, one of the many unfortunate consequences of generalizing from democratic procedure to a more general ethos of equality in democratic mass culture. And so political commentators end up writing and talking like sophomore humanities majors who become fascinated by the evocative words in “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle” or “General Relativity” without understanding very much about the actual concepts associated with those magical-sounding phrases, clumsily wielding ideas that are too heavy for them to handle.

In the matter of Trump’s coronavirus infection, this brand of willful moral illiteracy finds its full expression in essays such as Dan Kois’s offering in Slate, “How Should We Feel About the Suffering of This Man?” Kois, a human “Coexist” bumper-sticker of a writer, slaps together a half-assed manifesto for hate, and he recruits the usual assortment of sympathetic victims to gussy up his own well-off-white-guy hatred in borrowed robes of victimhood: “The summer of 2016,” he writes, “was the summer of learning to hate Donald Trump: for his racism, for his horrific treatment of women, for his cozying up to dictators, and—undergirding it all—for the possibility, however remote, that he could take all these qualities into the White House.” This is an example of self-righteous hatred, which says: I don’t hate for my own sake but hate selflessly, on behalf of the deserving.

This is a fairly common kind of thinking for the Left: On Friday, Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara wrote: “I think killing little Romanov children was justified.” The socialist dream dies hard: The killers lionized by Sunkara and likeminded American leftists were incompetent but persistent executioners, who shot the Romanov family but failed to kill the two teenage girls, whom they then attempted but failed to kill with bayonets, finally shooting them at point-blank range. The executioners, as Edvard Radzinsky put it in The Last Czar, “had no fear of heaven.” And so it is with their epigones.

Sunkara’s chef’s kiss to child murder came in the context of a discussion of Trump’s illness. His interlocutor, Alex Colston, wrote: “Obviously, you should want the bastard to die. How is that controversial. [sic] . . . Maybe justice demands more than being sentimental about Trump’s humanity when he bears significant responsibility for over 200,000 deaths.” And, if that is not categorical enough: “I hope he dies, and so far as we are wishing, I hope he realizes the country wants him dead.” Note, again, the cowardly recruiting of “the country” to the cause of private hatred.

(I suppose I must go ahead and note here that Sunkara is a sometime contributor to the New York Times, which published some frothing and foaming calls for your favorite correspondent to be fired and shunned for the purported harshness of my political views, and that Colston labors at Basic Books, which shortly thereafter offered to acquire a book from me and then backed down under internal criticism. My shocking view is that children should not be murdered for political purposes, or other purposes.)

Kois, in his Slate essay, brings up the issue of reciprocity. Some people, including the president’s political rivals, have comported themselves with at least some degree of grace and decency during his sickness. “Would Trump have behaved similarly under similar circumstances?” Kois asks. “It’s hard to imagine.” It is not hard to imagine, but it is impossible to believe. It is harder still, apparently, to understand that this is irrelevant — unless you see the world more or less the same way Trump does.

Because Trump is an emotionally stunted and intellectually immature man, reciprocity is his moral North Star, because reciprocity is simply another way of asking, “What’s in it for me?” Trump in fact frequently and explicitly frames his moral outlook in terms of reciprocity: If they’re nice to me, then I’ll be nice to them. He famously said of federal coronavirus aid to the states: “It’s a two-way street. They have to treat us well also.” His tweets are full of “treated me very well” and “treated me very badly” — he’ll use “us” if he’s feeling particularly presidential — and he once went so far as to say “reciprocity” is his “favorite word.”

The evolutionary biologists tell us we are evolved to practice and expect reciprocal altruism. We have that in common with fruit flies and baboons. What is unique to us is the ability to transcend the narrow narcissism of self-interest, including the narcissism of collective self-interest. But that has to be learned.

Trump isn’t a self-consciously wicked man. He isn’t the Marquis de Sade — he’s a child, and, like all children who have not been taught, he believes that if a certain course of action benefits him, then it is good, and if it causes him discomfort, it is bad. (And what is true of Trump is true of Trumpism, which insists that the president’s dishonesty and cruelty are virtuous.) That was what Trump was telling us when he was mocking John McCain for his time spent as a prisoner of war: McCain’s ordeal — which he himself could have relieved at any time with no expense to anything other than his honor — caused him terrible suffering, inflicting on him injuries from which he never fully recovered. Trump evaded service when his nation called, inventing some transparent horsepucky about bone spurs. McCain spent years being tortured and confined, and Trump spent his pre-bankruptcy years spreading his inherited wealth around New York in Eighties Playboy style — and, from Trump’s point of view, this incontrovertibly demonstrates the rightness of his course of action. How could McCain have been doing the right thing if it cost him so much?

From that point of view, Trump embraces fundamentally the same moral philosophy as Kois, Sunkara, Colston, et al., in which “justice” — or “karma” — means “I get what I want,” including, as Kois so directly puts it, suffering for those whom one hates.

There is an alternative approach, that we might extend the grace and love we would have for ourselves and our families not only to the stranger and the rival but to the enemy, that we would bless them that curse us and pray for them that despitefully use us, even those who persecute us, from whom no reciprocity can reasonably be expected. That we would not reserve grace and charity for those who deserve it and return it but instead extend it without hesitation to those who don’t. This requires something more than what Colston dismisses as “sentimentality.” It requires a radically different way of thinking about how to be a human being, one that cannot be learned from the New York Times.

Among the many desirable qualities of such an approach is that it would distinguish us from the baboons.

Words About Words 

I wonder whether the editors are paying attention over at NBC. Reporting about sexual-abuse accusations against Dallas pastor Rickie Rush, the local NBC affiliate writes:

“[Dallas Morning News reporter Miles] Moffeit said he did not deny the charges but said through a statement from his lawyer the claims appear to be specious and without evidence.” And the very next sentence is a quotation from the pastor’s lawyer: “Pastor Rush vehemently denies these accusations.” What we have here are two claims that cannot both be true: Either he denies the charges or he does not. Attributing the non-denial to a third party, in this case the Morning News reporter, doesn’t remove the problem or the question.

You see something similar sometimes with beginning reporters or amateurs who believe that inserting the word “allegedly” into a sentence magically dissolves questions of fact. What they neglect is that it matters a great deal who is doing the alleging. If an anonymous person calls a reporter on the telephone and says that the mayor is an embezzler, you can’t just call the mayor “an alleged embezzler” without doing some work — some, you know, journalism. That’s one of the problems with anonymous-source Washington reporting: It is a useful and valid form of journalism, but you have to be pretty careful with it, because any halfway decent reporter can find somebody who will claim almost anything about a public figure. Think about what the QAnon nuts say about Hillary Rodham Clinton or George Soros. You can’t just slap an “allegedly” in front of something and call it a day.

If, on the other hand, the mayor is indicted on embezzlement charges, then he’s “an alleged embezzler.” Or, if a member of the city council accuses the mayor of embezzling during a public meeting, or does so on the record, then you can write “the councilman alleged that the mayor is an embezzler.” The word “alleged,” with no real reference to who is doing the alleging and under what circumstances, confuses rather than making plain.

“Did not deny the charges” has become a kind of cliché, one that often sits there on the page begging for some reporting to be done. But much journalism is a prisoner of cliché: A headline in the Daily Mail says, “Video shows moments after cop was struck by gunfire while responding to Breonna Taylor’s apartment.” Police-beat reporters often end up talking and writing (and thinking) like the cops they cover, which means they will give you such examples of journal-ese as “responded to the scene.” Unless the officer in question says, “Holy crap! Look at that scene!” or pukes or faints or something, “responded to the scene” is not what you want. Officers may arrive at the scene, secure the scene, etc. In this particular case, the police were not “responding to” Breonna Taylor’s apartment but entering it, guns drawn, in the dead of night — facts that matter to our understanding of the story.

Some ways of writing illuminate. Some obscure.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A reader points out this sentence on The Corner: “In August, there were a slew of pieces accusing Florida governor Ron DeSantis of manslaughter.” He asks if it shouldn’t be “there was a slew” or “there were slews,” and, of course, he is correct. Slew, from the Irish sluagh, means “multitude,” and it is singular. This is a pretty common error, one I make fairly often myself. I’ll write something like, “A school of fish swim across the bay,” when I should write “a school of fish swims,” because the subject of the sentence is school, not fish. “A team of mules were hitched to the plow,” instead of “A team of mules was hitched to the plow,” etc. I think that what happens (to me, anyway) is that when I am writing I sometimes get to the end of a sentence without remembering the beginning of it, in which case my tendency is to want to match the verb to the nearest noun, which is not necessarily the right noun. Because I sometimes write very long sentences, I am more vulnerable to that error than many others are.

Question: So why does “One dozen eggs was broken” sound wrong?

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,here. The date of publication has been moved back a couple of weeks because of epidemic-related interruptions at the nation’s presses, and it will now be coming in mid-November.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

The religiously inclined rock singer and songwriter Edward Kowalczyk wrote a very simple line that has stuck with me for a long time: “We all get the flu, we all get AIDS.”

COVID-19, too.

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Politics & Policy

When Taxes Attack

(Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Welcome to “The Tuesday,” a newsletter that comes out on Tuesdays. It is about politics, language, culture, grammatical hobgoblins, political hobgoblins, sundry hobgoblins not easily categorized, and much more. To subscribe to “The Tuesday,” follow this link.

This Time, It’s Personal

In 2009, British actor David Prowse — the guy in the Darth Vader suit in the original Star Wars trilogy — briefly focused the reading world’s attention on the practice of “Hollywood accounting” when he revealed that he had never received a residual payment for Return of the Jedi because the film had never, on paper, turned a profit. The film cost $32 million to make, and it grossed $475 million, but — thanks to the magic of Hollywood accounting — it had never shown a net profit.

It’s a common story: The novelist Winston Groom never received a profit distribution from the very successful film of his novel Forrest Gump because it never officially made a dime, some of the Harry Potter movies were on paper money-losing propositions, etc.

The go-to Hollywood-accounting move is tacking heavy expenses onto a film’s account in order to keep money in the pockets of studios, executives, and investors rather than paying them out to actors and others who accept a percentage of net profits in lieu of greater cash compensation. For instance, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 — brought to you by Harvey Weinstein and brother Bob — ended up putting some $20 million into the pocket of working-class hero Moore (the favorite son of Flint, Mich., who never actually lived in Flint, Mich.), but Moore sued, claiming he had been underpaid by millions. During the litigation, certain expenses came under scrutiny, among them the “costs of hiring a private jet to carry a single passenger to Europe,” according to the Hollywood Reporter. These are the people who like to lecture the rest of us about “inequality.”

Private jet service — for one — to Europe: nice, nice, nice.

Because we have a very, very stupid tax code and social norms that accept relatively high levels of petty personal corruption, owning a business can be a good way to finance a pretty high mode of living while simultaneously reducing your tax liabilities. There are a great many businesses, especially privately held ones, whose owners and executives use them as a kind of slush fund. It isn’t hard to do. If you decide you want to take a vacation in Gstaad, you can schedule a board meeting or corporate retreat there and then treat your travel costs as a business expense. This is much more attractive to smaller private businesses than to large public ones, because publicly traded corporations are subject to oversight not only from the SEC etc. but also from their shareholders, who might not like to see their money wasted on champagne and Gulfstream hires. But if you are a business that has, say, $100 million a year in revenue, with family members on the board and no publicly traded stock, then you are not spending anybody else’s money on your — I hate this word — lifestyle. You are spending your own money, but spending it pre-tax. What that means is that a $1,000-a-night hotel effectively costs you about $600. The kind of people who pay the top tax rate are also the kind of people who travel a lot, who spend a lot of money on restaurants and wine, who stay in nice hotels, etc. Being able to treat some considerable share of those outlays as business expenses can really add up.

This isn’t illegal. It isn’t even necessarily unethical.

Modern work, especially among the highly paid and highly skilled, isn’t very much like 20th-century industrial work. There aren’t whistles announcing the end of the shift; most of the workers in the upper half of incomes — i.e., the ones who pay federal income tax — don’t punch timecards or sit at a desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There are many people working in technology, finance, media, and other high-paying fields who really cannot draw a sharp distinction between working time and private time or say with any degree of specificity when their workday begins and when it ends. In such situations, it is natural and nearly inevitable that some blending of professional life and private life will occur.

If Joe Businessman from Muleshoe, Texas, has to go to Bozeman, Mont., on Monday for a series of meetings that ends on Thursday but decides to fly back on the following Monday instead and spend the weekend fly fishing, then the cost of the flights is going to be the same — it might even be less. The business expense of the airfare might be the same, but in the latter case the businessman will some additional personal benefit from it. Has he somehow cheated someone? Not really. Or think of the case in which an American business owner has to travel to Europe for a half-dozen meetings scheduled over the course of a month. Say she does some sightseeing and personal entertainment on the days when she doesn’t have a meeting scheduled. Even with the business paying for meals and lodging on non-meeting days, it probably makes more sense from a legitimate business point of view to keep her there for the whole month rather than fly her back and forth. Maybe she’s a new mother and the business pays to send her child and husband with her. If she normally flies private, then including the family doesn’t add much to the expense. From one point of view, this is a family taking an extended European vacation and getting a tax advantage from it; from another point of view, this is how work gets done in 2020.

Incidentally, this is not exclusively a rich-and-famous gambit, or a new one. My mother was a secretary and her husband was a janitor at a high school, and together they did not make very much money, but, in the merciless ravenous wicked capitalist economy of the 1980s, they managed to come into possession of a rental property. It put enough money into their pockets to make the payment on the house we lived in, but — for tax purposes — that rental property always, always, always lost money. There are many like it around the country.

As long as we tax businesses on their profit — meaning, roughly, revenue minus expenses — then we will have to use some discretion about what counts as a legitimate business expense, and that is going to be, given the realities of modern work, a matter of judgment and personal sensibility. That creates some real benefits for business owners and executives, but it also exposes them to risks: If the IRS decides to go after you on your expenses, the lack of hard-and-fast rules operates to the taxpayer’s disadvantage, not his advantage. Being a politically unpopular person with some questionable expenses is a good way to go to prison.

From time to time, politicians try to stop businesses from making business decisions the politicians do not like by threatening to eliminate the deductibility of any associated expenses. You may remember a few years ago a big fight about businesses’ allegedly exploiting a tax loophole to get a subsidy for offshoring. That was, mostly, nonsense. It wasn’t a loophole or a technicality, although another term for “loopholes” and “technicalities” is “the law.” If a business decides to set up shop abroad, then there are going to be expenses related to that — acquiring property, building a facility, paying lawyers to figure out the tax and labor rules in the new jurisdiction, etc. — and these are ordinary business expenses that can be deducted. The politicians generally run up against reality on these things: It is pretty difficult to have a tax code that allows money paid for legal advice to be treated as a regular business expense unless the lawyer facilitates a course of action that Elizabeth Warren wishes he wouldn’t.

There are alternatives, but they have problems, too. We could avoid the question of deducting expenses entirely by taxing gross revenue, but that might seem unfair to the grocer who has $100 million in revenue but $1 million in profit, who would pay the same tax as the law firm that has $100 million in revenue and $98 million in profit. My own preferred approach would be to eliminate corporate taxes entirely, taxing the money as individual income when it hits somebody’s pocket, but that wouldn’t solve the problem of how we treat expenses — we would still have to decide which are legitimate and which are improper or fraudulent.

This leads us, inevitably, to the case of Potemkin billionaire Donald J. Trump, who refused to release his personal income-tax information but couldn’t keep the New York Times from getting into it and merrily writing it up. The story the Times tells comports with my longstanding impression of Trump, who, as I have been arguing since he first got into the 2016 presidential race, was much more successful as a reality-television grotesque than as a real-estate developer. As one critic acidly put it: “He thinks he’s Conrad Hilton, but he’s Paris Hilton.” But it is worth keeping in mind that the tax provision under which Trump was able to carry back (as opposed to carry forward) some extraordinary losses and thus claim a huge tax refund was not some arcane tax scheme — it was part of the Obama administration’s stimulus package.

Does anybody remember who was in charge of that? Take your time — I’ll wait.

From NPR: “Joe Biden was instrumental in getting the 2009 recovery act through Congress, then supervised the stimulus for the Obama administration.” Call it a handout to the rich if you like — because it surely was that — but maybe take a little note of whose hand was doing the handing out.

One of the truly irritating aspects of our politics is politicians’ writing certain benefits and incentives into the tax code and then b****ing and moaning when those tax provisions . . . work. Trump’s using the carryback provisions to get a big tax refund isn’t a perversion of the Obama policy — it is what the policy was created to do. You can’t write a tax law that says, “We’re going to give a big refund to people who lost a lot of money — unless we happen to think they’re jerks.”

Starbucks got into this a few years ago: In addition to being a fast-food chain, Starbucks also is a manufacturer of packaged goods, and, as such, it benefitted from tax credits for manufacturers. The shrieking and wailing were obscene — and they came from the very people who wrote the damned law in the first place. As though the law said, “Manufacturing credits — but not for you, Starbucks, you hateful and ubiquitous icon of yuppie consumerism!” If you don’t want people to use tax credits to avoid taxes, then don’t create tax credits that enable people to avoid taxes.

The other takeaway from the Times’ deep dive into Trump’s finances is — yikes! Given what he actually has, what he actually owes, and the money he’s been losing, he looks set to end up in bankruptcy court again. Call the movie: Trump Bankruptcy V: This Time, It’s Personal.

Words About Words

The New York Times writes: “In Judge Barrett, a favorite of conservatives, President Trump could hardly have found a more polar opposite to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” This is another example of sloppy writers’ being ill-served by metaphor. A point on a sphere has exactly one antipodal point, or polar opposite. Being a polar opposite is, like being unique, a yes-or-no proposition. There isn’t any such thing as a “more polar opposite.” Barrett might be closer to being the polar opposite of Ginsburg than some other judge, or it might be that there is no other judge who is closer to being Ginsburg’s polar opposite. Writing clearly takes a little work. You have to think about the actual words you are writing and what they mean, and then write what you mean.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A reader asks: “Why the possessive pronoun before such statements as, ‘I objected to his running down the street naked.’?” Once or twice a month, somebody writes to correct me or to question my having written something similar. The question is the gerund vs. the participle. Both are –ing forms of a verb, with the gerund acting as a noun and the participle acting as an adjective or part of a verb phrase. Because a gerund is a noun, the kind of word you use to modify it is an adjective, and the way you make an adjective out of a pronoun is through the possessive form: Which car? My car. I broke Elizabeth’s vase. She laughed at his dancing.

So you can write: I saw Bob. I saw him. I saw him, and he was running down the street. I saw him (here comes the participle acting as an adjective) running down the street. I saw him running down the street wearing nothing. I don’t object to his (and now the gerund) running down the street — I object to his running down the street naked. You’d want to use that if what you object to is running down the street naked, with Bob’s or his as an adjective. On the other hand, you’d use the objective form of the pronoun if the pronoun is indeed the object, and possibly use a participle to describe it: She loved him for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, as a successful businessman or working at 7-Eleven, driving a Ferrari or driving a Kia.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

Our annual William F. Buckley Jr. Prize Dinner is happening as a “Gala at Home” on October 5. We’ll still have the tuxedos and ballgowns, still have good company and fellowship, and will still be dedicated to the important work — honoring Bill’s work and legacy, and honoring those who are carrying it forward today, with this year’s honorees being James L. Buckley (“the sainted junior senator from New York”) and Virginia James, supporter of worthy conservative causes. The program will include NR writers and other guests. Tickets and sponsorships are fully tax deductible and go to support NRI’s educational and outreach programs that advance the NR mission. If you would like to attend, please RSVP today. The deadline is upon us. We are grateful for your support.

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. I think you will learn some things you had not known. I know I did in the course of writing it.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

Today is Michaelmas and the penultimate day of the federal government’s fiscal year. All in all, I prefer the rhythm of the liturgical calendar.

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Law & the Courts

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Didn’t Understand Her Job

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sits at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., June 1, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Welcome to “The Tuesday,” a weekly newsletter about politics, language, culture, and things that are so obvious that only a very expensively educated person could fail to understand them. If you would like to subscribe to “The Tuesday,” you can do so right here. I would be grateful if you would.

Justice in Drag

Ruth Bader Ginsburg did a great many interesting and impressive things in her life, but she never did the one thing she probably really should have done: run for office. Ruth Bader Ginsburg wasn’t an associate justice of the Supreme Court — not really: She was a legislator in judicial drag.

You need not take my word on this: Ask her admirers. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a vision for America,” Linda Hirshman argues in the Washington Post. What was her vision? “To make America fairer, to make justice bigger.” That is not a job for a judge — that is a job for a legislator. The job of making law properly belongs to — some people find this part hard to handle — lawmakers. Making law is not the job of the judge. The job of the judge is to see that the law is followed and applied in a given case. It does not matter if the law is unfair or if the law is unjust — that is not the judge’s concern. If you have a vision for America, and desire to make the law more fair or more just, then there is a place for you: Congress. That is where the laws are made.

This distinction is an important one. As you may have noticed over the course of the summer, Americans do not agree on everything. Some of us have ideas about what is good, decent, fair, just, wise, intelligent, prudent, and necessary that are radically different from the ideas other Americans have about what is good, decent, fair, just, wise, intelligent, prudent, and necessary. Democracy is not good for very much, but democratic institutions are how we settle those disagreements. Even the antidemocratic elements of U.S. government, such as the Bill of Rights, which put certain questions beyond the reach of mere temporary majorities, came out of democratic institutions and were implemented through a democratic process. It is from that that they derive their legitimacy. Democracy has its shortcomings — mostly rooted in the fact that human beings are universally fallen and in the majority savage — but the alternative is bonking each other over the head over every disagreement.

Put another way, the alternative is might makes right — which is exactly the kind of “jurisprudence” Justice Ginsburg and others of her kind have long practiced. There isn’t a goddamned word about abortion or gay rights in the Constitution, and it is absurd to think that such rights had been hiding there, lurking in the ol’ penumbras, since the 18th flippin’ century, waiting to be discovered by a committee of progressive lawyers who somehow see the “real” Constitution that went completely undetected by the men who wrote and ratified the document we actually have. That should be obvious even to people who support abortion or gay rights or other things that have been magically discovered in the Constitution. For the New York Times, Justice Ginsburg was a “feminist icon.” And she was — but it was not her job to be a feminist icon or to impose feminist ideology — or any other ideology — on the law and on the American public, substituting her own desires and preferences for those that are the result of the actual democratic process, daft as it often is.

Justice Ginsburg’s using her position to try to impose a feminist vision on federal policy ought to be recognized for what it was: an abuse of power. If you want to rewrite the law along feminist lines, that’s a perfectly honorable project — run for Congress.

The real fissure running through the Supreme Court is not between so-called liberals and notional conservatives, but between those who believe that judges are superlegislators empowered to impose their own vision on society and those who believe that judges are constrained by what the law actually says. The latter is the position of the Federalist Society and many lawyers associated with it, and that this position — that the law says what it says, not what people with power wish for it to say — should be controversial is an excellent indicator of why faith in our institutions has eroded so deeply. “If Republicans give Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat to some Federalist Society fanatic, Democrats should pack the court,” reads the line over Michelle Goldberg’s New York Times column. Read that and ask yourself who the fanatic really is.

(And: Whose seat?)

This should be obvious enough even to people who share Ginsburg’s ideology and political preferences. Maybe you think that the federal law should enshrine an unassailable right to abortion, or that the Bill of Rights shouldn’t protect the right to keep and bear arms as broadly and explicitly as it does. Many people would agree with you, and there are reasonable if erroneous good-faith arguments for those positions. But that is not what the law actually says. So, take it to the voters. In the case of abortion, that would have meant a state-by-state fight in the legislatures, which probably would have resulted in an abortion regime that is neither as permissive as the one we have nor as restrictive as abortion opponents would like, i.e., one that more closely resembles the actual position of the American electorate. (A large majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in the first trimester, and even larger majorities believe it should be restricted in the second and third trimesters.) In the case of gun control, proceeding legitimately would mean repealing the Second Amendment in order to impose the restrictions that progressives want but that are prohibited by the Bill of Rights. Yes, both of those would be long, hard, ugly, and frustrating fights that would almost certainly leave both sides partly unsatisfied — i.e., democracy.

It is, of course, much more tempting to get five allies on the Supreme Court to pretend that what you want is already mandated in the law, waiting to be discovered. And that was Justice Ginsburg’s specialty. Her most famous decision, outlawing the Virginia Military Institute’s single-sex admissions policy, was exactly the kind of thing you would expect from a “feminist icon” but shoddy — indeed, preposterous — as law. As Justice Antonin Scalia notes in his scathing dissent in the VMI case, other publicly funded military academies had changed their admissions policies, “not by court decree, but because the people, through their elected representatives, decreed a change.” What Justice Ginsburg was engaged in by inventing a prohibition on single-sex military academies was “not the interpretation of a Constitution, but the creation of one.”

Maybe Ginsburg was right to believe what she believed. That is irrelevant. The question is not whether VMI should have been admitting women, but whether the Constitution prohibited VMI’s policies and empowered activists such as Justice Ginsburg to replace those policies with others more to the liking of the nation’s progressive lawyers. It didn’t and doesn’t. Neither the text nor the history nor practice justified Justice Ginsburg’s decision — only her own sense of morality did. Her opinion is not legal reasoning — it is legal decoration, reverse-engineered and fitted to the decision she was committing to making for political rather than legal reasons.

Oh, but everything is political! they’ll say. I do not believe that judges are incapable of actually doing their jobs even if that means following the law to results other than the ones they would prefer — Justice Scalia’s account of the flag-burning issue is one example showing that it can be done the right way — but doing so would mean trying to do that job rather than treating the federal bench as a stage for score-settling, advantage-seeking, and constituent-servicing. If you don’t believe that judges should be constrained by the law — that power is power is power and that’s that — then you don’t have much of an argument against Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell filling this seat, which is not “Ginsburg’s seat.” And unlike Justice Ginsburg, who made up the Constitution as she went along, in this case Trump and Senate Republicans would be acting within their plain constitutional powers. In contrast to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, feminist icon, they would be doing their jobs.

The timing of Ginsburg’s death is a political inconvenience for Democrats — them’s the breaks. Trying to convert this into a question of principle is silly and dishonest. Yes, lots of Republicans said last time around that we shouldn’t confirm a justice right before an election. Lots of Democrats said last time round that we should. Handing out indictments for hypocrisy in Washington is like writing up people in New Orleans at Mardi Gras for public intoxication. Nobody doubts that the charge is a valid one, but, please, spare us the shock and sanctimony.

And after the slandering of Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, and Brett Kavanaugh, arguing that Republicans should decline to move forward on the nomination for comity’s sake is laughable. Nobody believes for one second that if President Hillary Clinton were struggling toward an uncertain reelection campaign and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer had the chance to confirm a new Supreme Court justice of her choosing that the Democrats would hesitate for a second. Nor have they ever shown themselves interested in replacing “conservative” justices — meaning those who are not open partisan campaigners on the model of Ginsburg — with conservatives or moderates in the name of ideological balance. The Democrats put left-wing activists on the Court when they get the chance, even if, like Elena Kagan, they have to lie their way through their confirmations to get there. Democratic complaints about political hardball after the outrageous campaign of fantastical fiction and slander directed at Kavanaugh, the anti-Catholic hatred directed at Amy Coney Barrett by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), etc., are beneath contempt. So is threatening to create a constitutional crisis through a Court-packing scheme if a Democratic president and Senate are elected, threatening (more) riots and (further) arson, and other attempts at extortion.

On the matter of the Court-packing endorsed by Michelle Goldberg et al., Democrats should be careful about the precedents they set. Republicans may learn slowly, but they learn. Democrats spent generations engaged in partisan gerrymandering and then suddenly got religion on that subject when Republicans got good at it. They didn’t think their slander of Robert Bork and the politicization of the nomination process would come back to bite them, but it did. Mitch McConnell believed the politics were on his side, and he was right. A Democratic Senate might reorganize the federal courts in a way that gives their party a momentary advantage — which is banana-republic stuff, but that is what Michelle Goldberg of the Times advocates, and she is not alone — but there will be a Republican majority again. There’s one now. Is that a weapon you want to put in Mitch McConnell’s hand? In Donald Trump’s hand? Because the genie doesn’t go back into the bottle.

Justice Ginsburg could have retired some time ago — and probably should have. But she believed in 2016 that Hillary Rodham Clinton was going to win the election, and so she held on. That was a political miscalculation. But that happens from time to time. Dwight Eisenhower was asked about the greatest regrets of his time as president, and he answered: “I have made two mistakes, and they are both sitting on the Supreme Court.”

Ginsburg’s legacy is not a body of legal opinions but a deformed and disfigured judiciary, one in which the American people have — with good reason — lost some measure of faith. Setting that right will be the work of a generation. And that work begins with understanding that a judge’s concern is not justice or fairness or progress but the law, and that people who want to change the law should run for office.

The alternative is not a panel of philosopher kings but the “nine-headed Caesar” that Justice Scalia warned us about.

Words About Words

I have seen one or two advertisements for a roofing company called “Staz On.” That is the marketing version of the soft bigotry of low expectations. Stays on? I should hope so! That is pretty much literally the very least one might expect from a roof. You see these excessively self-deprecating business names from time to time: In India, there was a butcher’s shop called “Decent Meat.” I suppose I prefer decent meat to indecent meat (which sounds like the name of a 1980s hardcore band), but that shop was really not saying much for itself. In Austin, there was a bar under a neon sign reading, simply, “Beer.”

But the marketing mentality is a kind of intellectual cancer, and it spreads even to anti-marketing material. In the 1990s, when Corporate America was trying to figure out how to sell things to Generation X poseurs who believed themselves to be so jaded and worldly as to be immune to crass marketing hype, the Coca-Cola Company produced “OK Soda” and advertised it with anti-advertising (a chain-letter campaign, a consumer call-in line with a 1950s-style announcer who offered to imitate bird calls) and the anti-slogan, “It’s okay.” It was okay — it was an orange soda, but not as good as Orange Crush. Because it was targeted at the Generation X proto-hipster demographic, it was test-marketed in cities such as Seattle, Denver, and Austin. Daniel Clowes (Ghost World) and other fashionable artists were brought in to decorate the cans. But OK Soda joined New Coke on the ash-heap of Coca-Cola history. And, since then, we have accumulated even more ample reason to believe that, far from rejecting hype and horsesh*t, Americans generally prefer it in about the same proportion that dentists recommend Sensodyne.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A reader writes to ask if I have noticed and lamented the promiscuous superfluous “of,” as in: “He’s not that great of a quarterback.” This is one of those “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant!” things — I’d never really taken note of that particular verbal tic before, and now I see it everywhere, like I’m that crusading atheist assaulting fenceposts in The Ball and the Cross. This formation is known in some circles as the Big Of, with an “of” sandwiched uselessly between an adjective and a noun, “not that big of a deal,” etc. As Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman’s “Grammarphobia” notes, constructions of this kind have been around for a long time, in metaphors (“a hell of a dilemma,” “a bear of a problem”) and with some adjectives of comparison (“less of a problem,” “more of an advantage,” “enough of a concern”) but not others (“as big a challenge,” “as common a usage,” “as great a quarterback”). The difference, Grammarphobia writes, is between adjectives of quantity (less/more) and those of degree (big/small). To my ear, “Biden is less a problem than Schumer” sounds about as correct as “Biden is less of a problem than Schumer,” except that I tend to want the comparison in the former example to be not between Biden and Schumer but between problem and something else: “Trump is less a disease than a symptom.”

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.com

Home and Away

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. I hope you enjoy it, or, if you don’t enjoy it, you don’t enjoy it exactly the right way to not enjoy it.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to Mad Dogs & Englishmen here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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

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Our annual William F. Buckley Jr. Prize Dinner is happening as a “Gala at Home” on October 5. We’ll still have the tuxedos and ball gowns, still have good company and fellowship, and will still be dedicated to the important work — honoring Bill’s work and legacy, and honoring those who are carrying it forward today, with this year’s honorees being James L. Buckley (“the sainted junior senator from New York”) and Virginia James, supporter of worthy conservative causes. The program will include NR writers and other guests. Tickets and sponsorships are fully tax deductible and go to support NRI’s educational and outreach programs that advance the NR mission. If you would like to attend, please RSVP today. We are grateful for your support.

In Closing

T. S. Eliot believed that “the Church must be forever building, and always decaying, and always being restored.” The republic, too. First principles and basic truths must always be reestablished and restored, because they are always being forgotten or perverted. (Right-wing complainers who expect permanent and irreversible conservative victories do not understand history, or conservatism.) The purported radicalism of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas is simply the understanding that we write laws down for a reason. That doesn’t mean that they cannot be changed, but it is not the role of judges to change them, and we could save ourselves a tremendous amount of grief if we simply agreed to that and lived by it. We need judges who will do that, of course, but, first and supremely, we need citizens who demand it.

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Editor’s note: This essay has been updated since its original publication.


Illegitimate Illegitimacy

(Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Welcome to “The Tuesday,” a newsletter about culture, language, and the necessary evil of politics. If you would like to subscribe to “The Tuesday” — and I would appreciate it if you would — follow this link.

Legitimacy Roulette

Legitimacy is a thorny problem in politics, because the notion itself is subtle and to some extent necessarily subjective. “Legitimate” doesn’t mean “good.” Legitimacy is instead bound up in the question of consent, and people have been known to consent not only to imperfect governments but to horrifying ones. There is a good argument to be made that the regime in Beijing, for example, enjoys widespread consent, offers a measure of upward accountability, and is legitimate as a political question even though it is both evil and repulsive, and even though the consent it enjoys is not universal. If we are to understand how the world actually works, then it is important to distinguish between normative and descriptive claims.

(For a full and worthwhile discussion of these questions, see Francis Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order.)

We Americans have a tendency to collapse complex political questions into simpleminded questions of preference: hence “democratic” ends up meaning “I think this is good,” “unconstitutional” denotes only “I don’t like this,” etc. “Legitimate” ends up being used in the same way. This is a real civic failure, because it reinforces the tribal superstition that if a vote or a Supreme Court decision doesn’t go your way, then either the Constitution or democracy has suffered a violation, meaning that at any given time approximately one half of the population is expected to remain at a low boil of pre-revolutionary agitation. This is a reminder that positive education for citizenship is necessary because the alternative to good ideas is bad ideas, not no ideas. The civic mind is a garden, and something will grow there — either flowers or weeds.

“Legitimacy” selfishly construed can be a powerful political weapon. That is why each of the last three American presidents has been characterized by his opponents as illegitimate and why that characterization has been fortified by conspiracy theories: that Bush v. Gore was a corrupt decision, that Barack Obama was a Kenya-born interloper, that Donald Trump’s election was secured by Russian hackers. The late John Lewis insisted that Donald Trump is not the “legitimate” president of the United States, and many other Democrats have made similar claims. Impeaching Trump was less a matter of adjudicating specific claims about specific misdeeds than it was a general statement of Democratic belief in his illegitimacy, which is why the passion for impeachment never spread very far beyond the fever swamps of narrow partisanship. It came and went like a summer storm.

To the very limited extent that the question of Trump’s legitimacy is based on anything other than partisan hatred, it is related to the notion that the Russians in 2016 hacked into the vote-counting system and rigged the outcome for Trump, a claim that a large majority (two out of three) of Democrats reported believing in a YouGov/Economist poll. That story is pure fiction, but, as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez insists, it is more important to be morally correct than factually correct, at least as far as brain-dead partisans are concerned. That is a way of saying that a lie becomes the truth when it serves the right power interests — an article of political faith that is, in the long term, incompatible with the maintenance of a self-governing liberal democratic political system.

Weaponizing legitimacy is irresistibly tempting for the vulgar partisan. That is why we always see a flood of stories in Democrat-aligned newspapers about the tottering legitimacy of the Supreme Court (or Chief Justice John Roberts’s personal integrity) when a contentious case is being heard. We sometimes see similar stories about congressional legitimacy when Republican leaders use procedural tactics to frustrate Democratic desires, and in recent years we have seen many stories arguing that the Electoral College is illegitimate because it has cost the Democrats political victories that they believed to be rightly theirs. Similarly, Democrats became very intensely concerned about gerrymandering right around the time Republicans got good at it. Like “unconstitutional,” Democratic activists use “racist” to mean “I don’t like that,” and so the Electoral College, Senate procedure, Republican redistricting advantages, and even the idea of free speech itself have been at times dismissed as racist, which is simply another way of saying “illegitimate” in Democratish. Republican denunciations of Democratic spending priorities as “socialism” generally serve the same function. Of course, there are many partisans who sincerely believe such claims; stupidity, including freely chosen stupidity, is something that democratic institutions must take into account. Further complicating this is the fact that there are racists in American life, as well as socialist political initiatives.

While much of this discourse is only cynical partisans “working the refs,” there also is a deeper belief, seldom put into words, that constitutional democratic liberalism means, “We get what we want.” And so we, through our deputized intellectual elites, do a great deal of work reverse-engineering rationales for our desired outcomes. That is why Democrats looking to the Supreme Court to give them victories they fail to achieve in Congress or in the states must pretend that the First and Second Amendments do not say what they say and that the 14th Amendment says what it does not say.

This requires some intellectual plasticity. For example, if 50 percent + 1 of U.S. voters choose Joe Biden in the imaginary national presidential election in November but Donald Trump wins the non-imaginary election in the Electoral College, then there will be riots predicated on the notion that Trump’s reelection under such circumstances was illegitimate because the imaginary process is legitimate and the actual process is illegitimate. How is that possible? Because “legitimacy” is magic. “Democracy” in this context is crudely construed to mean “the majority gets what it wants,” and partisans rely on such crudeness when it suits them. But such crude majoritarianism is only blessed when it produces the desired results. If the nation’s sodomy laws had been put up to a vote on the day Lawrence v. Texas was decided, a large majority of Americans would, if the polls of the time are to be believed, have voted to uphold those laws. They were bad laws, but they were neither undemocratically nor unconstitutionally enacted, and their survival was not incompatible with the legitimacy of the Supreme Court — in fact, the Court’s nullification of those laws was itself an illegitimate use of its power, however well-intended.

The Emancipation Proclamation would not have been endorsed in a national referendum. And slavery was not unconstitutional — the Constitution plainly assumed slavery’s existence. The full abolition of slavery required the 13th Amendment. That amendment probably would not have passed a national popular vote. Neither would have gay marriage. As a practical matter, freedom of speech and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures would almost certainly fail to pass majoritarian muster right now.

Abortion would not have won an election on January 22, 1973. And so it must be a constitutional right, previously undetected. The partisan mind is incapable of admitting that there are things in the law that shouldn’t be there as well as things that aren’t in the law that should be, because the partisan mind believes that its own preferences are not only self-evidently good and worthy but mystically transformative: If the right people want something to be true, then it becomes true. It takes a mighty effort of the imagination to believe that a right to abortion or to homosexual relations had been lurking in the penumbras of the Constitution for centuries before a small committee of Democratic lawyers discovered it — and to believe simultaneously that the First Amendment somehow does not mean what it says.

But you can count on the effort’s being made.

That is what is sometimes known as “motivated reasoning.” There are many constitutional scholars — including some who favor abortion rights — who concede that the legal rationale behind Roe v. Wade was simply manufactured out of political fancy and personal preference, an argument fitted after the fact to a political (as opposed to legal) ruling that was never in doubt. The civically and intellectually responsible alternative for the pro-abortion side — to admit that the Constitution is silent on the question and to make their case on honest political grounds in the electoral theater — would have been much more difficult for Democrats politically. And so, given a choice between their own political interests and seeing to the actual legitimacy of the federal government, of which the rule of law is a component, they chose narrow political self-interest. Which is to say, “legitimacy” can and is used to undermine legitimacy. Put another way, illegitimate illegitimacy erodes legitimate legitimacy.

As a matter of electoral calculation and personal conscience, it is easier to engage in that kind of thing when the political discourse is dominated by shrieks of existential hysteria, and so such shrieking is supplied by the usual suppliers. Those are the people who are telling you that America is finished if x rather than y wins the upcoming presidential election. Of course they believe it is true, for the same reason they believe the Constitution specifically endorses this or that and forbids the other — such a belief retroactively justifies preexisting commitments and inclinations. A great deal of our political discourse is dedicated to reassuring people that they are right to hate the people they hate, that such hatred is necessary and righteous.

Turning the Christian maxim on its head, tribal partisanship is about hating the sinner, not the sin — the sin may be useful, after all, in the right hands. What the United States is suffering from is something like the mutual excommunications that divided the Christian world, first splitting East from West with the schism at the beginning of the second millennium and then fracturing Christendom even further with the bitterly contested divorce of the Reformation. We are developing a kind of political theology asserting that members of the opposite party — by which we really mean the opposite tribe — cannot hold power legitimately, that their holding power is ipso facto evidence of an illegitimate process or situation.

And like much of what is worst in our national life, we place the blame for this on political parties, elites, the media, special-interest groups, and anywhere else except where blame actually belongs, where responsibility is rightly fixed, and where legitimacy ultimately resides — with ourselves.

Words About Words

Our friend David French has written a typically intelligent and sensitive essay about “critical race theory,” which does not require any elaboration by me except to note the borderline illiterate writing from UCLA ideologues French quotes to define critical race theory:

CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color. CRT also rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy. Legal discourse says that the law is neutral and colorblind, however, CRT challenges this legal “truth” by examining liberalism and meritocracy as a vehicle for self-interest, power, and privilege.  CRT also recognizes that liberalism and meritocracy are often stories heard from those with wealth, power, and privilege. These stories paint a false picture of meritocracy; everyone who works hard can attain wealth, power, and privilege while ignoring the systemic inequalities that institutional racism provides.

I take an indulgent view of slightly pretentious spelling variations (engrained vs. ingrained). But I take a less liberal view of “identifies that,” which is an illiterate pseudoscientific dressing-up of “claims that”; the agreement problem in the same sentence; “the American society” where “American society” would do; the clumsy run-on sentence that tries to make “however” do the work of an ordinary coordinating conjunction; the agreement problem in “liberalism and meritocracy as a vehicle”; etc. The logic is no better than the grammar: The false claim that liberalism asserts that “everyone who works hard can attain wealth, power, and privilege” is the dopiest straw man since Ray Bolger in The Wizard of Oz.

There isn’t much point in my rehearsing arguments that George Orwell made more compellingly three quarters of a century ago. But it remains true that bulls*** writing is the witch’s familiar of bulls*** thinking. Understanding this kind of bulls*** for what it is — a decently paid career path for intellectual mediocrities — makes the otherwise perplexing careers of Rachel Dolezal, Jessica Krug, and Shaun King much more easily understood. Race-hustling is a pretty good gig, and Donald Trump on his best day couldn’t build a wall high enough to keep college-educated middle-class white people out of a pseudo-intellectual sinecure that sweet. The women’s-studies departments simply are not large enough to absorb the surplus in the market.

Rampant Prescriptivism

Three things:

1. CNN writes: “There’s something very unique about the 2020 map.” No, you boobs, there isn’t. “Unique” means “one of a kind,” and something either is unique or is not unique. Nothing is “very unique,” because nothing is “a little bit unique.” In short: “Very unique” is not another way to say “very unusual.” The obvious comparison would be, in a society less savage than ours, “a little bit pregnant,” but we high-tech barbarians rank trimesters under a primitive notion of ensoulment that is studiously not talked about.

B. Twitter-fueled rumor that the Associated Press has changed its stylebook to permit the use of “less” when “fewer” is called for turns out to be unfounded. Stannis Baratheon breathes a sigh of relief.

Lastly, the New York Times demonstrates the proper use of “career,” here: “So while Mr. Abbas looks for some kind of gesture from Israel that he can hold up as a victory, and Israel refuses to commit to dropping annexation permanently, salaries in the territory are not being paid, families are enduring hardships, and the Palestinian Authority is careering toward bankruptcy.” Hooray for the copy desk.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com. Yes, the 1, B thing is a joke.

Home and Away

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

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

I am not much of a factionalist when it comes to religion. (My earlier convert’s zeal has cooled some.) But my mention of the Reformation above reminds me of a question I have sometimes thought about: If Martin Luther, John Calvin, et al. could have seen the future, and what an unholy mess we have made of things, might they not have decided that it would be better to have one church in need of reform rather than to have 88,862 churches in need of reform? And in the secular political context, might it also be the case that people who believe that our troubles would be mitigated by founding a new political party to compete with the two big ones we already have are making the same mistake, multiplying problems rather than solving them? The analogy is far from a perfect one, and, of course, the founding of the Republican Party in 1854 did help to advance a critical reform agenda. But it seems to me that that is more the exception than the rule. I would welcome your thoughts.

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Politics & Policy

Why Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer Are Demanding Tax Cuts for Their Rich Friends

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, joined by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, speaks about efforts to pass new coronavirus aid legislation during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, July 23, 2020. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

Welcome to The Tuesday, a newsletter about politics, language, and culture. It is the perfect countermeasure if you are feeling “obscure, decrepit, terrified, ill-favored, penniless, and fond of adjectives.” To subscribe to The Tuesday — and I would be grateful if you would — please follow this link.

Pelosi and Schumer Demand Tax Cuts for the Rich

Funny thing about American politics: In campaigns, we fight the culture war, but in government, we fight about nickels and dimes. It is a political truism that most people really don’t give the furry crack of a rat’s patootie about whether the top federal income-tax rate is 37 percent or 39.2 percent. What people really get excited about is abortion or gun-control or transgender toilet etiquette and other issues that thrive weedily in cultural fissures.

There is a good reason most people do not get that excited about the top federal income-tax rate. A large proportion of Americans — just under half, in fact — pay no federal income tax at all. Unlike those expansive Nordic welfare states that our friends on the left claim to admire so intensely, the U.S. system of federal tax rates is radically progressive, relieving much of the middle class and practically all of the lower-income classes of all or practically all of the federal income-tax burden. And the number of Americans who have to worry about the top rate is even smaller: For a married couple, the top rate kicks in north of $600,000 a year, a sum earned by only about 8 percent of U.S. households. Add an extra $100,000 or so, and you are down to 1 percent.

But minority groups, even very small minority groups, can have an outsized influence on politics, especially if they are wealthy minority groups. Bitch and moan about inequality all you like, the disproportionate influence of the wealthy on political policy is generally a good thing, because the wealthy are (slightly) less authoritarian than the poor. As the economist Bryan Caplan (“Why Is Democracy Tolerable?”) wrote in 2012:

Before I studied public opinion, I often wondered, “Why are democracies’ policies so bad?” After I studied public opinion, I started asking myself the opposite question: “Why aren’t democracies’ policies even worse?” The median American is no Nazi, but he is a moderate national socialist — statist to the core on both economic and social policy. Given public opinion, the policies of First World democracies are surprisingly libertarian.

Compared to the wealthy, Professor Caplan finds, the poor are “much more anti-gay. They’re much less opposed to restricting free speech to fight terrorism.” Professor Caplan finds that while there are not very many points of radical divergence in opinion between the affluent and the non-affluent, in those instances where there is a marked disagreement, the affluent are more likely to prevail.

Which is why Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are getting ready to go to bat for tax cuts for the rich, their No. 1 domestic priority in the post-Trump/post-McConnell future they believe will be arriving in January. Green New Deal? Free false teeth for impoverished grandmas? Oh, pipe down, peons! Bob Weinstein has bills to pay!

In a very amusing New York Times column by two Brookings nerds, Richard V. Reeves and Christopher Pulliam, the question is raised:

The election is a referendum not only on the moral failings of President Trump, Democrats argue, but on the economic fissures of the new economy. It is a fight, Mr. Biden says, on behalf of “the young people who have known only an America of rising inequity and shrinking opportunity.”

Why on earth, then, are Democrats fighting — and fighting hard — for a $137 billion tax cut for the richest Americans? Mr. Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer don’t agree on everything, but on this specific issue they speak with one voice: the $10,000 cap on deductions for state and local tax (better known as the SALT deduction) must go.

Limiting the deductibility of state and local taxes (SALT) amounted to a big tax increase on rich progressives in high-tax jurisdictions such as New York City and San Francisco, the political homes of Senator Schumer and Speaker Pelosi, respectively. For years, this provided the limousine-liberal set with a much-needed economic palliative against the pain of living under the rapacious and incompetent governments of New York, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc. It was a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too arrangement: The grubby little miscreants in Sacramento and Albany were happy with the jack, and the high-income constituents they milk like a particularly docile if snappily dressed herd of dairy cattle hardly felt any pain thanks to the federal tax analgesic.

With the SALT deduction severely limited, a lot of rich Democrats took a hit. Some of them even packed up and left for more plutocrat-friendly jurisdictions such as Florida, dumping assets in the high-tax states: Bob Weinstein sold his Greenwich home, taking a 15 percent haircut off the asking price, dumped his Upper West Side townhouse at no profit, and sold his magnificent spread stretching across the 16th and 17th floors at the Beresford. The Weinstein family has had problems bigger than taxes in recent years, but they aren’t the only ones reducing their footprints or entirely getting out of New York City and New York State, out of Connecticut, out of New Jersey, and out of California.

This has been felt especially keenly in New York, which, thanks to its own radically progressive tax code, relies on a tiny fraction of its taxpayers to fund a large share of state and local government. As of 2016, taxpayers earning more than $700,000 a year — the cutoff point for the hated 1 percent — were paying 43 percent of New York City income taxes and the majority of New York State income taxes, according to state data analyzed by the Empire Center. And some of those whales left for Florida, Texas, Nevada, etc. Governor Andrew Cuomo warned that the lost revenue from millionaire tax refugees might force cuts in state spending or — angels and ministers of grace defend us! — higher taxes on the middle class. But, as the Wall Street Journal put it, Governor Cuomo, like his progressive colleagues around the country, did nothing to reform New York’s own tax policies. Instead, he simply raged that the federal government’s unusually intelligent decision to cease subsidizing these policies was “diabolical.” From the Journal’s editorial board:

During his 2010 campaign, Mr. Cuomo promised to let New York’s tax surcharge on millionaires expire. But he has extended it again and again and now wants to renew it through 2024 because he says the state needs the money. Meantime, he warns that a wealth exodus could force spending cuts for education and higher taxes on middle-income earners.

All of this was inevitable, as we and others warned. Yet rather than propose to make the state’s tax burden more competitive, Mr. Cuomo rages against a tax reform that has helped the overall U.S. economy, even in New York. Perhaps now that he’s found Art Laffer on the road to Albany, he’ll think anew.

Properly understood, Schumer and Pelosi are not responding to the demands of a tiny minority of high-income taxpayers — they are responding to the demands of an even tinier minority of Democratic governors and mayors: Governor Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gavin Newsom in California, Mayor Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, etc., along with federal officeholders such as Senator Kamala Harris, who depend upon those great overflowing slop buckets of campaign cash coming out of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street.

Sometimes, a small minority (or the Smallest Minority!) deserves to prevail. Sometimes, it’s just a bunch of champagne socialists trying to sneak out of happy hour without paying their tabs.

Words about Words

For some people, the BBC is the standard for English pronunciation. It is not the standard for English composition, e.g.:

It is a piece of what is now called “event” cinema, an immersive experience to stimulate all the senses, which it does, from Ludwig Göransson’s throbbing Wagnerian score to visual effects company DNEG’s eye-boggling CGI.

Hyperbole and cliché both have legitimate uses, but you should be careful about letting your prose degenerate into contextually stupid stock phrases such as “all the senses.” Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is by most accounts a very good film, but as a film it is capable of stimulating, by my count, two senses: “DNEG’s eye-boggling CGI” for the eyes, Göransson and that throbbing Wagnerian stuff for the ears. I would not be surprised if somewhere in some Las Vegas–area basement a team of Russian computer scientists were working feverishly to discover a way to permit video to stimulate the rest of the senses, probably in the employ of some off-the-books porn-industry think-tank. But, for now, a movie not only fails to “stimulate all the senses” but fails even to stimulate the majority of the senses.

Rampant Prescriptivism

From Andrew C. McCarthy:

The charge is contained in a criminal information. That is a form of formal allegation the Justice Department uses when a defendant agrees to waive indictment (i.e., forego his right to have the grand jury find probable cause to charge a crime). It is often, but by no means always, used in connection with a defendant who is pleading guilty under a cooperation agreement.

When I was a deputy managing editor at National Review, I spent a fair amount of time editing my friend Andy McCarthy, who remains my friend in spite of that painful experience. To briefly revisit it: To take a pass on something is to forgo it; to forego something is to go before it. As in: “In the foregoing sentences, I chose to forgo cheap self-referential usage humor.”

In case you are wondering, the forego in the past tense is forewent.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com 

Home and Away

On the Liberty University mess:

The tragedy of Jerry Falwell Jr. is that he turned out to be exactly the putz many people expected him to be.

But even amid all the horrifying comedy — whatever is going on with the Falwells and that Miami “pool boy” — there is real tragedy.

The principal tragedy is institutional.

Jerry Falwell Jr. and Liberty University present a textbook example of American institutional decline. As the political analyst Yuval Levin has argued at length in his 2020 book “A Time To Build,” many critical American institutions are failing because they have been hijacked by the personal ambitions of their leaders.

The full article is available in the New York Post. It is the sort of thing you’ll enjoy if you enjoy that sort of thing.

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

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here. With Charlie on vacation, the great Jay Nordlinger sits in on the most recent episode.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

I’m not saying it necessarily means anything, but the week’s headlines are the sort of thing that your editor would take out of a satire as being too on-the-nose:

CNN: “A gender reveal sparked a wildfire in California that’s grown to 7,000 acres.” Fireworks apparently are à la mode at such events.

New York Times: “At Least 4 Boats Sink During ‘Trump Boat Parade’ in Texas, Officials Say.” What happened? “Too many variables” to say, says a sheriff’s spokesman bearing the Harry Potter–worthy name Kristen Dark. (Slytherin, obviously.) She adds: “We had an exceptional number of boats on the lake today. When they all started moving at the same time, it generated significant waves.” Nothing more dangerous than a stampeding herd of independent thinkers, or a fleet of them.

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Ritual Denunciation and the Mau-Mauing of the Former Magazine Editors

Andrew Sullivan on CNN. (CNN/via YouTube)

Welcome back to The Tuesday, a newsletter about politics, culture, and language that has returned from a vacation that was if not necessarily much-deserved then at least much-needed.

Ritual Politics and Ceremonial Journalism

Ritual denunciations are a necessary part of ritualized politics. And so Ben Smith has written a ritual denunciation of Andrew Sullivan in the New York Times, a column that contains an extraordinary bit of moral reasoning that a cynic might take as an exercise in self-interested journalistic ass-covering.

Sullivan was the editor of The New Republic in the 1990s, and probably the most famous American political magazine editor since William F. Buckley Jr. As Smith’s article notes, Sullivan was so celebrated a figure that he was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for a Gap advertisement — a pretty big deal for a print journalist in the 1990s. (The musician Henry Rollins appeared in a Gap ad, too. It was a weird time.) As editor of The New Republic, Sullivan published an excerpt from Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve, a book about the social functions of intelligence. It was a book more written about than read, because one of its chapters discussed differences among the median IQ scores of different racial groups. The Bell Curve may have been the last American non-fiction book to provoke a genuinely national intellectual controversy, coming, as it did, just before the emergence of our new post-literate mass culture.

Sullivan published that excerpt in 1994. He joined New York magazine as a contributing editor in 2016 — 22 years later. In 2020, four years after hiring him, New York magazine fired him for the editorial decision he made decades before in 1994. Smith writes:

The new editor of New York, David Haskell, didn’t push him out because of any new controversy or organized staff revolt, the two New York employees said. Instead, the shift in culture had effectively made his publishing of “The Bell Curve” excerpt — and the fact that he never disavowed it — a firing offense, and Mr. Haskell showed Mr. Sullivan the door before the magazine experienced a blowup over race of the sort that have erupted at other publications.

(The most relevant part of that paragraph are the words that follow “before,” i.e., the statement of institutional cowardice.)

Smith is writing here in the contemporary moral-confessional mode. His article is headlined, “I’m Still Reading Andrew Sullivan. But I Can’t Defend Him.” And that is, of course, to the point. A great many prominent American journalists and cultural leaders with impeccably progressive credentials have praised Sullivan to the heavens over the years and welcomed him into the inner circle. The denunciations are necessary for them for an obvious reason: If an editorial decision in the 1990s can become a “firing offense” ex post facto owing to a “shift in culture,” then it would not be outrageous to suggest that all those nice progressives who did so much to advance the career of Andrew Sullivan, pariah, are eligible for professional sanction as well. Surely their hands are not clean.

Here, for example, is what New York’s editor at the time, Adam Moss, said upon hiring Sullivan:

I have had the privilege of working with Andrew from the beginning of his career (mine too). He is a major (deep and elegant) thinker and writer whose work has had tangible consequence, and he has written some of the more influential essays I have ever had the honor to publish. He also happens to be a true innovator ― one of the first and best political writers online. . . . Since he stepped away from his blog in 2015, his voice has been greatly missed in our national dialogue. I’m grateful that he will return to writing at New York.

Moss hired Sullivan and said those things knowing that Sullivan had in 1994 published an excerpt from a controversial book. It is, of course, too late to treat hiring the moral monster Andrew Sullivan as a “firing offense” for Moss, who announced his departure from New York last year and became a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. But why should the transitive property of moral monstrosity stop there? Charles Murray is a mild-mannered sociologist, but if we imagined him to be the white-supremacist villain of the Left’s imagination, a figure whose villainy is sufficient to reach over the decades and justify firing Andrew Sullivan in 2020, then why should the publishers of New York magazine escape punishment for having platformed the naughty platformer? Why should the people and institutions who advanced Adam Moss’s career — the New York Times, Esquire, etc. — get off the hook, having platformed the platformer of the naughty platformer?

Sullivan’s problem, in Smith’s judgment, is that he “never disavowed” publishing a controversial book excerpt. And so Smith is here to disavow Sullivan, and to offer a little bit of self-justification as well:

I came to Provincetown to better understand why Mr. Sullivan, 57, one of the most influential journalists of his generation and an obvious influence in my own career, is not as welcome as he once was at many mainstream media outlets. But my visit helped me see something more: how Mr. Sullivan is really a fixed point by which we can measure how far American media has moved. He finds himself now on the outside, most of all, because he cannot be talked out of views on race that most of his peers find abhorrent. I know, because I tried.

I have no doubt that he did indeed try his best. All decent people are in his debt.

And perhaps he even heard a quiet voice whispering, Ego te absolvo.

Words About Words

A legendary jurist said: “No one has ever been able to explain to me the difference between social justice and justice.” The term often is assumed to be a crypto-Marxist neologism, but it has been around for a while. Federalist No. 7 speaks of it: “We have observed the disposition to retaliation excited in Connecticut in consequence of the enormities perpetrated by the Legislature of Rhode Island; and we reasonably infer that, in similar cases, under other circumstances, a war, not of parchment, but of the sword, would chastise such atrocious breaches of moral obligation and social justice.” (That’s how you use enormity, too; it doesn’t mean enormousness.) And T. S. Eliot, who was careful with his words and concepts, gave the topic some thought back in 1939, in his The Idea of a Christian Society. The enduringly relevant passage is worth quoting at length:

It ought not to be necessary for me to insist that the final aims of the churchman, and the aims of the secular reformer, are very different. So far as the aims of the latter are for true social justice, they ought to be comprehended in those of the former. But one reason why the lot of the secular reformer or revolutionist seems to me to be the easier is this: that for the most part he conceives of the evils of the world as something external to himself. They are thought of either as completely impersonal, so that there is nothing to alter but machinery; or if there is evil incarnate, it is always incarnate in the other people — a class, a race, the politicians, the bankers, the armament makers, and so forth — never in oneself. There are individual exceptions: but so far as a man sees the need for converting himself as well as the World, he is approximating to the religious point of view. But for most people, to be able to simplify issues so as to see only the definite external enemy, is extremely exhilarating, and brings about the bright eye and the springy step that go so well with the political uniform. This is an exhilaration that the Christian must deny himself. It comes from an artificial stimulant bound to have bad aftereffects. It causes pride, either individual or collective, and pride brings its own doom. For only in humility, charity and purity — and most of all perhaps humility — can we be prepared to receive the grace of God without which human operations are vain.

We might understand social justice as meaning general justice, making a distinction between those situations in which questions of justice are raised explicitly (criminal proceedings, lawsuits) and the situations that prevail in ordinary social life. Conservatives who take a narrow view of government action tend to look at a particular situation in terms of actionable procedural justice: If someone is poor, but not poor because someone stole his property, not poor because someone defrauded him, not poor because he was injured by a careless driver and cannot work, then, from the narrow point of view, there is no question of justice raised by his poverty. There is some wisdom in that view, too, at least as a generally applicable guide to government action. The partisan of social justice, on the other hand, declared that poverty is itself by definition unjust, or that poverty existing in proximity to property sufficient to alleviate that poverty is by definition unjust. Perhaps that point of view indicates a generous spirit (a spirit especially generous with other people’s property!), and it may be that advertising a generous spirit is nine-tenths of what such statements are meant to accomplish. But, in any case, simply declaring every undesirable situation unjust does nothing to mitigate suffering, and it does nothing to provide an intellectual or political framework for addressing community problems.

We have to be careful about our language, because we are in many cases its prisoners. For example, we might also write that procedural justice is a question of how the courts and police departments are organized while social justice is a question of how the community is organized, but that would be an error to the extent that healthy and productive communities are not organized at all in the sense of having an organizational scheme imposed on them in the interest of justice, efficiency, or anything else. Healthy communities are examples of spontaneous order, emergent self-organized systems exhibiting fluidity and complexity.

Social justice is vague and infinitely plastic, which is, of course, the point. A nebulous moral mandate in the hands of people with armies and police forces at their disposal is one of the most dangerous things in the world.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A reader sends in the following sentence: “If your traumatic experience is seen as something thrust upon you unfairly and the world should reconfigure itself to resolve it, then you’re essentially dooming yourself from ever overcoming that pain.”

Doomed from? Doomed to? Either? Both?

Doom as a noun is old — older than modern English, in fact. It comes from the Old English dom, meaning a decree or judgment. The Old English word derives from earlier Norse and Germanic words, possibly being derived from the same Indo-European root as the Sanskrit word for “law.” To send someone to his doom was to send him to his judgment, either in the secular sense or in the Last Judgment sense.

Doom as a verb dates from the 14th century and originally meant “judge” or “condemn,” which is pretty close to the modern (generally passive) usage meaning “fate” or “consign.”

All of those argue for a to rather than a from. This is similar to the forbidden to and prohibited from problem that comes up from time to time.

Incidentally, the verb version of doom developed along parallel tracks, with the one that kept more of its sense of “judge” or “rule” in the modern English word deem.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

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

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

If you look at New York magazine’s Wikipedia page, the photograph currently illustrating it is a New York cover advertising a very controversial article, Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic,” that became part of a controversial book routinely denounced as racist: Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers. Tom Wolfe died in 2018, but surely there is somebody who can be fired for this.

Here is a question for New York editor David Haskell: Would you publish Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic” today? Why or why not?

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


Bloc Heads

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses the New Hampshire Democratic Party state convention in Manchester, September 7, 2019. (Gretchen Ertl/Reuters)

Welcome to The Tuesday, a cheery little weekly newsletter about the existential despair Irving Kristol indicated when he noted that Western civilization is collapsing “but it’ll take a long time, and, meanwhile, it’s still possible to live well.”

The Bloc Party

Right-leaning writers hawking books about virtue and character used to go on and on about the moral dangers of the welfare state, the spiritual deadening caused by dependency, the “culture of victimhood,” passivity, lack of personal agency — and they grew strangely quiet right around the time a bunch of white people in the suburbs and rural areas started dying from opioids and rallying around the banner of Donald Trump, whose populist-nationalist politics offered them both patronage and a barely plausible justification for their embrace of dependency, which is what all patron-client politics ultimately comes down to.

The about-face was remarkable, hence much remarked-upon. When it was young, poor African Americans and Puerto Ricans dying of heroin overdoses in New York City under Mayor John Lindsay (“demand a recount!”), the preferred solution was tougher policing and longer prison sentences, a prescription that held for a generation with the enthusiastic support of Joe Biden, among others. In the early 21st century, when it was young white men from modest-to-affluent backgrounds dying of prescription-painkiller abuse in Governor Robert J. Bentley’s Alabama, the entrepreneurs of Virtue, Inc. did their best imitation of the tweedy sociological liberals they once mocked and began snuffling out “root causes” like so many shiny pink truffle-hunters. (And I don’t mean Der Truffeljäger von Zuffenhausen.) Our progressive friends insist that this is racism prima facie, but, then, they also insist that it is evidence of racism if Mitt Romney orders oatmeal for breakfast.

(He seems like an oatmeal guy, no?)

What it is, of course, is what John Lindsay’s opponent in 1965 (a fellow by the name of Bill Buckley) said he proposed to take on: “interest-group liberalism,” large-scale bloc politics organized around patronage and political protection.

Of course, in the case of the United States, interest-group politics often is racial politics. The GOP’s growing indifference to civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s and the Democrats’ embrace of civil-rights legislation at approximately the same time were two reactions to one political reality: that black voters had abandoned the Republicans for the Democrats, that this was unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, and that this necessarily would influence political calculations in all sorts of ways, not all of them happy. The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin reports that Johnson described the situation in the crudest political terms: “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us, since they’ve got something now they never had before: the political pull to back up their uppityness.” Senator Goldwater, an NAACP member and a lifelong opponent of segregation (his activism in Phoenix is an underappreciated story), was making essentially the same calculation at the same time with his advice to “hunt where the ducks are,” more or less giving up on the votes of the 12 percent of Americans who are black in pursuit of the votes of the 88 percent of Americans who are not.

Political coalitions are temporary manifestations of fluid cultural conditions, and part of the friction in democratic politics come from the fact that institutional inertia ensures that the political coalitions often outlast the underlying cultural conditions. There isn’t any obvious reason for the Teamsters to be in a coalition with the transgender ideologues and Black Lives Matter, just as there isn’t any real reason for the proponents of what in the rest of the world is known as liberalism (free markets, limited government, the rule of law, etc.) to be in coalition with the NATPOP elements on the right, which incline toward étatisme, autocracy, and mercantilism.

But political coalitions are funny and unpredictable things. Right now, many on the right are celebrating President Donald Trump’s unconstitutional practice of patronage politics; i.e., his issuing executive orders assuming prerogatives that the president does not properly have. (Rush Limbaugh approves, National Review dissents.) In substance, President Trump’s recent foray might as well have come from Elizabeth Warren: student-loan forbearance, extended unemployment benefits, etc. Conservative radio host Mike Gallagher was typical in mocking the idea that anybody should “give a damn about the constitutionality of this” because — well, because! “That cat’s been out of the bag for a long time,” he says by way of nonexplanation. How is this different from the executive orders from Barack Obama that conservatives denounced? “People are frightened right now!” Gallagher insists. Well. People on food stamps may be frightened of losing them, illegal aliens may be frightened of being deported, soldiers may be frightened of war — but that is not how we expect leaders to go about making decisions, is it? Surely President Obama also was responding to genuine fear and anxiety with, say, DACA, but that doesn’t change the fact that his actions were unconstitutional.

But whose fear and anxiety is being responded to? That, of course, is the skeleton key to democratic politics.

What might it take to get the Right to discover the ancient and hard-won wisdom about the limits of patron-client politics? The Upper West Side in agony might be a good place to start. The indispensable New York Post has published an excellent selection of reporting and commentary about current conditions in Manhattan neighborhoods into which Mayor Bill de Blasio has relocated a portion of the city’s homeless population, moving them from shelters into hotels, many of which have seen their revenue collapse because of the coronavirus epidemic and the lockdowns. One of the benefits of moving the homeless into hotels is that it gives them more privacy, which contributes to individual dignity; one of the problems with moving the homeless into hotels is that it gives them more privacy, which is not the best thing for a population that includes many mentally ill drug addicts who would benefit from more rigorous supervision.

The results are more or less what you would imagine: people shooting up heroin in public, urinating and defecating on the sidewalks, and generally terrorizing the elbow patches right off of the Upper West Siders. Curtis Sliwa, the scarlet stormcrow of New York City, is leading red-beret patrols, no doubt to the amusement of David Dinkins.

Decades of progress can be washed away in a day or two, as Steve Cuozzo reports:

“We’re back to where we were fifty years ago,” longtime area resident Michael D’Onofrio told the Post — referring to the area’s decrepit and dangerous conditions in the 1970s. Don Evans, a restaurant operator and consultant who lives one block away, fumed, “This f—ing mayor. He wants to piss people off.”

Evans, chairman of the Taste of the Upper West Side food festivals, said, “A lot of people on the Upper West Side are away now. They’re going to be shocked when they get back to the city.”

Donald Trump and Bill de Blasio have a great deal in common. They are both New Yorkers (de Blasio having moved around a bit before settling there), both have populist pretensions, and both are really quite extraordinarily bad at their jobs. (The tragedy of Donald Trump vs. Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016 is that it was not a race for mayor of New York City, a position in which either one of them might have done a pretty good job, or at least a better job than Bill de Blasio has managed.) And both Trump and de Blasio are, in this case, attempting to react to a set of urgent conditions created by the ongoing emergency of the coronavirus epidemic. In a sense, the example of the de Blasio–Trump parallel is even more dire if you imagine the facts on the ground to be the result of the efforts of two men making a good-faith effort at doing the right thing as each understands it. To believe our national situation or New York City’s local situation to be the result of malice would be, in comparison, comforting.

This might be understood as a crisis of democracy. By that, I do not mean that democracy is gripped by a crisis but rather that democracy is the crisis. Coalition-building is a natural and healthy part of democratic politics — that is one of the important functions performed by political parties. But a democracy of nothing more than the arithmetic of bloc politics, without direction or organizing principle, ends up mired in error and chaos. The lesson of populists from Huey Long to Hugo Chávez to Donald Trump is that populism’s politics of “the People” as a valorized abstraction always and everywhere fails the people who actually live and work in the world.

Leo Strauss:

Modern democracy, so far from being universal aristocracy, would be mass rule were it not for the fact that the mass cannot rule but is ruled by elites, i.e., groupings of men who for whatever reason are on top or have a fair chance to arrive at the top; one of the most important virtues required for the smooth working of democracy, as far as the mass is concerned, is said to be electoral apathy, i.e., lack of public spirit; not indeed the salt of the earth but the salt of modern democracy are those citizens who read nothing except the sports page and the comic section.

Democracy is then not indeed mass rule but mass culture. A mass culture is a culture which can be appropriated by the meanest capacities without any intellectual and moral effort whatsoever and at a very low monetary price.

Strauss wrote that in the course of an essay about the purpose of liberal education. The following sentences read:

Democracy, even if it is only regarded as the hard shell which protects the soft mass culture, requires in the long run qualities of an entirely different kind: qualities of dedication, of concentration, of breadth and of depth. Thus we understand most easily what liberal education means here and now. Liberal education is the counter-poison to mass culture, to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing but “specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart.” Liberal education is the ladder by which we try to ascend from mass democracy to democracy as originally meant.

The liberal education to which Strauss refers is in part an education in civic virtues, an education for citizenship. It is simultaneously an education for leadership and an education for followership. How to get to 270 in the Electoral College or 51 in the Senate is by no means a trivial question. But those are questions of means. The question of ends may be answered in a limited and short-term way with a candidate’s campaign proposals or a party’s platform. And that is not trivial, either. But there is a still higher question to be answered, one that cannot be satisfactorily settled at the ballot box or by the superficial and truistic language of democratic coalition-building politics. Bill Buckley talked about the politics of “free false teeth.” We might ask: Who gets them? Who pays for them? Who wins the contract for providing them? We might even wonder how various false-teeth proposals poll in the swing states.

But that would be only a modest ambition in the service of a republic that is, at the moment, in need of a more difficult kind of service.

Words About Words

A reader inquires:

I ran across this sentence this morning while reading Maureen Dowd’s column (I know, I know!) about Geraldine Ferraro’s selection as Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984: “I was writing and was shocked to hear how ambivalent women still were about a woman running the country.”

“Running the country.” That phrase turns up a lot, and every time I read or hear it my back goes up. I want to shout: “No! The president does not ‘run the country’! He or she doesn’t even run the government! The president is, or should be viewed as, the head of the executive branch of the federal government! No more, no less!”

Should I calm down and just accept the phrase as a harmless idiom? Or is it, as I fear, a symptom of how deep the rot goes when it comes to the lack of knowledge about basic civics?

In linguistics, there is something called the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or “linguistic relativity,” the idea that our cognition itself is shaped, directed, and constrained by our language. The charming (but totally made up) story about Eskimos’ having 400 different words for different kinds of snow speaks to that — that people who do not have the language to identify 400 different kinds of snow do not actually experience 400 different kinds of snow — snow is just snow. Skiers actually do have different words for different kinds of snow: pack, powder, etc.

A more useful real-world example would involve questions of social reality: For example, in some cultures there is a particular word for the relationship between a wife and her husband’s parents but no corresponding term for the relationship between a husband and his wife’s parents, because these are understood to be fundamentally different kinds of relationships, involving different duties and obligations. In English, a woman’s husband’s mother is her mother-in-law, and a man’s wife’s mother is also his mother-in-law, and the relationships are understood to be more or less equivalent. The absence of a word for the distinct daughter-in-law/in-law relationship in English, the theory goes, prevents English speakers from genuinely understanding the other social reality, even if you explain it to them in English.

My belief is that phrases such as “run the country” have a subtle and powerful influence on how we think about the presidency, and that this interacts (as in the case of Geraldine Ferraro and whichever woman Joe Biden picks as his running mate) with a wider human tendency to seek a commanding father figure (“America’s Dad,” John Kasich calls the president) (imagine me making retching sounds here). I have argued for some time (I intend to write a book about it) that the key to understanding the evolution of the American presidency is idolatry, and that our attitude toward the office is more or less continuous with an ancient tradition of priest-king cults.

I have noted with some dread the increasing prominence of the phrase “commander in chief” as a presidential epithet. The Latin word for commander in chief is imperator, from which we derive the English words emperor, part of a bundle of words that includes empire, imperial, imperialism, etc. Not encouraging.

Though I agree with him about much, I am glad John Adams lost the title debate, and we call the chief executive “Mr. President” rather than “Your Highness.”

Rampant Prescriptivism

“We are waiting for the Zoom meeting to populate.” These are words we say often at National Review now, but they are not quite right. Contemporary English has a habit of butchering certain transitive verb phrases and converting them to quasi-intransitives: “A meeting populates” rather than “a meeting is populated.” A reader writes in with examples, including “A message displays” rather than “A message is displayed.” There are times when this makes sense: We write “I added up the numbers” but also use the phrasal verb, “The numbers don’t add up.” But much of the intransification is ugly corporate tech-speak, and that should always be avoided.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.com

Home and Away

If you would like an excellent example of confirmation bias in action, see my recent error about Karl Marx.

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

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

I am going to take a vacation, and The Tuesday will return after two weeks.

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


The Burning Times

President Donald Trump pauses as he addresses a re-election campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., June 20, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Welcome to The Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about politics, language, culture, pedantry, partisan pyromania, and suchlike.

The Right loves a factional brawl, and the past week brought a pentagonic crossfire between Peggy Noonan, Mona Charen, Charlie Sykes, Ramesh Ponnuru, and David French, five right-leaning Trump critics who, as it turns out, don’t agree on very much. The battle has been joined, the injured moan in agony. . . . Somebody has to go around and bayonet the wounded, and I have a newsletter to write. So, away we go.

The question is, “Burn It Down, or No?”

Or, to put it another way: “What’s the more pleasing way to march Republicans onto ice floes and shove their sorry asses out to sea — one at a time, or all at once?”

“Burn It Down!” has become a shorthand for the less easygoing kind of anti-Trump conservative. (Apologies, Millennials and nitwits: I do not think or write in hashtags, and if that is what you are looking for, look elsewhere.) For members of the Burning faction, to see Donald Trump lose in 2020 would be insufficient — their view is that the Republican Party as a whole must be punished for its energetic embrace of Trump and Trumpism. For some, such as the gentlemen of the Lincoln Project, that means not only actively supporting Joe Biden’s presidential campaign but also working to pick off congressional Republicans, especially vulnerable senators — some make the case for voting straight-ticket Democrat as a matter of civic hygiene.

The Not For Burning faction argues that this is an overreaction and that it is counterproductive, inasmuch as taking down Lincoln Project targets such as Senator Susan Collins of Maine would leave the Republican Party not only smaller but also Trumpier — it would be easier to knock off the last New England moderate than it would be to take down Ted Cruz or Jim Inhofe. Surely, the Not For Burning faction argues, the answer cannot be a Republican Party that is both politically weaker and politically worse than it already is?

In Mona Charen’s estimate, a November bloodbath for the GOP would represent in real terms a small political loss, maybe even an almost inconsequential one, and a price worth paying. One by one, Republicans rolled over and cowered at the fear that the president might . . .  mean-tweet them. Lindsey Graham went from Dr. Jekyll to Senator Jackass in a flash and never looked back. Senator Cruz buddied up to a guy who called his wife ugly and his father an assassin. Jeff Sessions . . . oh, Jeff Sessions. “They believed that they were powerless and acted accordingly,” Charen writes. “Since they were powerless when it counted, what difference would it make if voters were to make it official?” Charen’s column is in many ways persuasive, but there it leaves an aftertaste of “It couldn’t possibly be worse.”

It can always be worse.

Ramesh Ponnuru sees such Burners as “engaged in an ideological dispute disguised as a tactical argument.” And, as tactics go, they ain’t much. “Most of the people who vote for a post-Trump Republican candidate in 2024 are going to be people who voted for Trump,” Ponnuru writes. “Any competitive center-right party after Trump will by necessity represent substantially the same voters who put him into power in November 2016 and have sustained him in it since then. Any strategy for changing the Republican Party that fails to reckon with that fact is doomed.”

My guess is that the overwhelming majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters will vote for Trump in November without much of a second thought, being, as they insist that they are, somewhere between satisfied and ecstatic about his performance.

While I appreciate, share, and endorse Ponnuru’s pessimism, I do not think Republicans are fully considering their options. Educated, affluent suburbanites used to vote Republican in large numbers, and now they do not. They didn’t just all misplace their golf clubs and their penny loafers at the same time. The GOP chose to become the National Farmer-Labor Party. Ponnuru is right that a party numerically dominated by Trumpy voters is going to be a Trumpy party, but the Trumpy voters aren’t the only voters to be had. And if the non-Trumpy right-leaning voters would have an easier time winning elections with the Trumpy ones on their side, the reverse also is the case. November is going to be a test of whether the Trump tendency can do it on its own — or, more accurately, of whether the GOP can do without the anti-Trump Right.

(Two quick things before I go on: First, it is worth noting that this conversation mostly assumes that Trump is going to lose in November, which probably will be the case but may not be the case. Second, it is easier to write up the differences within the anti-Trump Right than within the Trumpy Right because all the anti-Trump people have columns and the Trumpy people have radio shows. The medium is the message, after all!)

David French frames this in part as a question of “grace,” asking us to consider “the monumental pressures that Donald Trump has placed on the entire GOP and the lack of good options that so many GOP officeholders faced.” Oh, I don’t know about that: Congress is full of men and women who have utter contempt for their positions, but who feel very strongly about having a position of some kind, and if the fear of returning to the private sector is “monumental pressure” for a bunch of second-rate lawyers . . . well, they asked for the damned job. (“Begged,” as one of those schmucks who has watched too many mob movies likes to sneer, “like a dog.”) I, too, believe in grace. If you ask for my forgiveness, my forgiveness will be forthcoming. And if you ask me for a loan, I am going to check your credit. We can treat people with grace without also trusting them with great power knowing that we have good reason not to trust them with that power.

French suggests we pick and choose: Most of Republicans currently under fire are “not the chief offenders or culprits who led the United States to its present national predicament.” Instead, he writes, “each Republican should be judged on his or her own merits,” and that we should reserve our wrath for “individual Republicans” who have “displayed excessive individual flaws that should disqualify them from office.”

French knows his Bible, and he is here playing the part of Abraham pleading for Sodom: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” What if there are 50 righteous men in the city? What if there are 45? What if there are 40? What if there are ten?

What if it’s just Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse?

I am not sure that making an exception for the few Republicans who have stood tall in the past four years would actually put that much practical room between David French’s position and Mona Charen’s: Everybody likes Ben Sasse, Justin Amash has had enough and is calling it quits, and Mitt Romney doesn’t face another election until . . . 2024. I’m probably forgetting somebody.

We’re going to need a bigger ice floe.

Peggy Noonan raises an important question, maybe the most important question in this debate: How should we think about the state of the Republican Party before Trump?

That is a real dividing line: The Lincoln Project view is that there is no “clean” GOP, that the modern American Right has always really been about boobism, racism, and money-grubbing, from William F. Buckley Jr. to Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan. A less categorical version of that argument (and a more plausible one) is that the conservative political movement, like any major social movement, has always had its share of cranks, grifters, and careerists, and that the politicians associated with that movement have been content to “hunt where the ducks are,” as Senator Goldwater put it, taking votes (and donations) from where they are available without asking too many questions about it unless they were forced to. Yes, National Review did important work in chasing out the Birchers and various other nut-cutlets of the midcentury Right, just as on the left a few labor leaders in those same years did heroic work in excluding the Communists. You meet whackadoodles in politics, everywhere: I’ve met them at Trump events, at Hillary Clinton events, at Bernie Sanders events (Oh, my!), at the Republican National Convention, at the Democratic National Convention, at a Louis Farrakhan speech, at a meeting of the San Bernardino city council — everywhere.

But in 2016, the whackadoodles ended up actually running the Republican show for a minute, and the whackadoodle voice is at the moment quite prominent on the right, part of the intellectual race to the bottom led by social media and cable news. For this, Peggy Noonan blames . . . the current anti-Trump Republicans, who “never seem to judge themselves.”

Mr. Trump’s election came from two unwon wars, which constituted a historic foreign-policy catastrophe, and the Great Recession, which those in power, distracted by their mighty missions, didn’t see coming until it arrived with all its wreckage. He came from the decadeslong refusal of both parties’ leadership to respect and respond to Americans’ anxieties, from left and right, about illegal immigration. He came from bad policy and bad stands on crucial issues.

Noonan is partly conflating politics and policy here. Yes, the Bush-era wars ended up being unpopular, but that does not necessarily mean that Bush was wrong on the policy question. (He was, not because his initiatives ended up being unpopular but because they ended up being ineffective.) Noonan is right to point to immigration. In the United States as in Europe the failure — the refusal — of responsible political parties to respond to immigration concerns created opportunities for demagogues such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Marine Le Pen, although once again we should emphasize the fact that the responsible parties’ having got it wrong on immigration does not necessitate that Trump et al. have it right. They mostly don’t. Her argument is in that sense too narrow (this is not a Bush phenomenon or even a uniquely American phenomenon) and also ahistorical: Trump is not the first Trump-style presidential candidate we have seen, and Trumpism did not arise from the financial crisis or the failure in Iraq. Trump’s shrewd insight was in running Ross Perot’s campaign inside the Republican Party rather than as a third-party candidate. Trump, remember, was for a time affiliated with Perot’s startup Reform Party — he even made a half-assed run for the presidency on the Reform ticket in 2000.

Trump’s campaign was not the result of a “perfect storm,” as Noonan says, but is rather the expression of a gathering storm that has been with us since the beginning of World War II. There’s a reason Trump often sounds like a pre–Pearl Harbor isolationist and why he embraced a slogan from 1940: “America First.” Part of the old tariffs-and-neutrality Fortress America Right ended up in the Murray Rothbard orbit, and part of it ended up in the Republican Party, where it has never been entirely comfortable alongside the free-traders and Big Business types and the Wilsonian “make the world safe for democracy” types. They raged against Rothschild and Morgan a generation ago, and they rage against Bezos and Zuckerberg today.

Another way of saying that is that the spiritual descendants of Bill Buckley and Milton Friedman are on one side of the table while the epigones of Robert Taft are on the other, and what’s no longer obvious to everybody is why they are sitting at the same table at all when it is increasingly clear that their fundamental values, intellectual tendencies, and moral frameworks are not only distinctly different but incompatible. Somebody is going to have to go.

That is why Charlie Sykes is so obviously irritated that Peggy Noonan declines to name names. To whom is her improving advice offered?

Can you purge Trumpism but still embrace, say, Marsha Blackburn? Should we make a place at Peggy’s tasteful table for Seb Gorka? Or Stephen Miller? Or Judge Jeanine? Or Louie Gohmert? Trump is a problem, but he is not the alpha and omega of what ails the conservative movement. His ascension suggests that we were all wrong about a great many things.

Sykes and Noonan are on opposite sides of the looking glass: Sykes sees the Republican error as accommodating and exploiting proto-Trumpism for all these years, whereas Noonan sees the Republican error as not embracing it with sufficient fervor, allowing it to fester in unsupervised alienation. There is a coherent case to be made for either position. How much corporate blame you want to put on the GOP for Trump and Trumpism will necessarily reflect in large part your attitude toward the pre-Trump Republican modus operandi, and how much you think Trump is a unique and special case vs. how much you think he is an utterly predictable case of political emphysema after four packs of outrage a day for 30 years, Newt Gingrich with an inheritance instead of an education.

Everybody loves a good purge, but real progress means recruiting new allies and forming new alliances. And that is what the Trump movement in fact did, aligning the soft xenophobic tendency (anti-trade, anti-immigration) with the entitlement mentality (“Don’t touch my Social Security!”) and a whole Chalmun’s Cantina of social anxieties, while promising a salubrious purge (“Drain the swamp!”) of effete elitists who secretly run the world while being, at the same time, entirely irrelevant. That alliance worked, to an extent, in 2016. It didn’t work for George Wallace, Pat Buchanan, or Ross Perot, and it probably won’t work for Trump in 2020, but it might work again for somebody else in 2024. It may be electorally viable, but I wouldn’t want any part of it, and neither would a fair number of other people who were generally aligned with Republicans for the past 40 years or so. Are they enough to matter? We’ll have an answer on November 4, but that will not be the end of the disagreement.

Hence the current crossfire.

Words about Words

When I was in college, a friend of mine introduced me to a friend of his, who recently had finished up at the University of Texas and taken a job teaching in a public school. She seemed very nice and said that she was surprised by how much she was learning on the job while preparing her lessons plans.

“Really?” I asked. “What all have you been learning while teaching . . . second grade?”

“Well, did you know,” she said, “that Africa is not a country? It’s a whole continent made up of lots of other countries!”

I thought of that conversation when reading this New York Times headline: “My Torture at the Hands of America’s Favorite African Strongman: Yoweri Museveni, the country’s president and the Pentagon’s closest military ally in Africa, deploys security forces to assault opposition lawmakers.” We have “African strongman,” “ally in Africa,” and “the country’s president,” but no indication of what country we are talking about.

(It is Uganda, and the author is a member of the Ugandan parliament.)

Headline writing is a tricky business, and trickier if you are stupid and dishonest. ABC News: “Protesters in California set fire to a courthouse, damaged a police station and assaulted officers after a peaceful demonstration intensified.” It takes an American journalist to combine “peaceful” with “assaulted” and “set fire to.” One would think that if a “peaceful demonstration intensified,” it would become more intensely peaceful, or perhaps more intensely demonstrative. But the issue here is violence and the unwillingness of the left-leaning American press to speak and report plainly about the violence done by its political allies. One of the problems with the media is that they are biased; a bigger, related problem is that they will not do their job.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A reader writes in to insist that people in Texas talk about the futility of a “mute point,” but I have never heard of it. Then again, I also know Canadians who swear they never say “aboot.” The same reader asks for an official Rampant Prescriptivist ruling on “orientated.”

“Orientated” is “chiefly British,” says Merriam Webster. It comes to us from the Latin word for “rising” and, by solar analogy, “east,” hence “Orient,” “Oriental,” etc. To be oriented is to know which direction is which. (This is sometimes said to be related to the Muslim practice of facing east, toward Mecca, for prayers, but the usage predates Islam.) I can see no useful difference between oriented and orientated, but if the British like it that way, I am inclined to make accommodations for our elder brothers in the language.

Home and Away

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My New York Post archive can be found here — including my latest, “More conservatives should sue for media abuse like Covington student Nick Sandmann.”

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Who Is My Neighbor?

Campaign signs outside a polling place during early voting in Dallas, Texas, November 2, 2018. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Welcome to The Tuesday, a newsletter about politics, language, and culture — mostly language and culture, lately — and other things that I think you might want to know about.


I suppose it is normal to be sophomoric when you are a sophomore, but I was a junior in high school when Clayton Williams and Ann Richards faced off in the Texas gubernatorial election. Richards was a hero of Democrats from coast to coast thanks to her insult-comic practice of politics, and Clayton Williams was Donald Trump before Donald Trump was; i.e., a boorish rich man with no obvious preparation for the office he sought and a penchant for saying stupid and ugly things. Richards won that one, but Texas has never yet elected another Democratic governor.

It was a close race, and the yard-sign action was pretty hot in Lubbock, Texas, especially in the parts of town where college professors and other imported progressives were likely to live. I had a stridently left-wing American-history teacher, a would-be union organizer who taught the crime-spree version of American history, which, in her curriculum, consisted of very little other than slavery, the Trail of Tears, and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. She was mad for Ann Richards, of course (Richards, like Lyndon Johnson, had been a schoolteacher, giving social-studies classes at Fulmore Junior High School in Austin, the name of which has been changed because Zachary Taylor Fulmore served as a private in the Confederate army) and believed Clayton Williams to be the devil incarnate. So we took a couple of Clayton Williams signs and planted them in place of the Ann Richards signs on her front yard, out of juvenile meanness. She did a little Three Stooges–worthy slapstick when she witnessed the vandalism. It was gratifying. We returned her signs, mostly because we wanted to take credit for the prank, which she didn’t think was as funny as we did.

(Technically, we were pre-sophomores, because sophomore properly refers to the university years rather than to high school.)

As I have mentioned before, I live in a pretty assertively lefty neighborhood (big cities in Texas are a lot like big cities in the rest of the country) surrounded by diehards who are not going to take the “Beto for Senate” stickers off their Audis. (Forgive me for quoting myself: “We admire our neighborhood for its diversity: There are white people with Audis, black people with Audis, Latino people with Audis, Asian people with Audis, gay people with Audis . . .”) But they are mostly nice people, and we rarely talk about politics. Sure, all that “Black Lives Matter” paraphernalia does sometimes give one the sneaking suspicion that these nice white progressives are trying very, very hard to elide the fact that they all live north of the street that forms a socioeconomic Berlin Wall between our neighborhood and the poor and largely non-white one to the south, that they’re all over here with the nice restaurants with vegan options and the new coffee shop and the National Review guy rather than a few blocks away with The People.

But there have been two little eruptions of political nonconformism in the precincts. In one instance, a modest little Trump yard sign made an appearance, and lasted a day or two. I do not know what happened to it, but it is gone. In the second episode, a big “Trump 2020” flag went up in front of a neighbor’s house. (The tragedy of gentrification is that it doesn’t happen all at once.) That announced a little escalating arms race on the block: A Biden sign went up directly across the street, and then — in case anybody missed it — there were two Biden signs in the same yard. (You know who needs to be told twice? Joe Biden.) Other little eruptions followed. Random bearded hipster pedestrians passing by pointed out my neighbors’ Trump flag to denounce it. With my mouth I said, “People like what they like,” and with my heart I said, “Keep walking, hippie, and don’t slow down.”

And then the Trump flag was gone.

I assume somebody stole the flag or that the neighbors were bullied into taking it down. (I haven’t had a chance to ask and haven’t really gone looking for one. Good emotional fences make good neighbors.) I suppose it is just barely possible that they could have had a late July change of political heart after reading something in the back pages of The Economist, but these particular neighbors don’t seem the constantly-rethinking-my-priors type. Given a choice between the people with the Trump flag and the smug hipster snoot stopping randomly on the street to gossip about how awful it is that somebody has a Trump flag, I’ll take a hard pass on the eye-rolling dopes spilling a fair-trade almond-milk latte on my Kentucky 31. I don’t give a flying MacGuffin how my neighbors vote.

There’s an art to neighborliness. It is simultaneously libertarian and communitarian. If we would be good citizens, we should first be good neighbors.

Neighborliness requires us to abide by Russell Kirk’s “principle of variety,” to cultivate our “affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.” The radical systems that Kirk refers to are all at heart totalitarian in the sense that they recognize no community apart from or superior to the factional community. For the old-time Communist or the modern practitioner of political correctness, the shadow line runs through everything, and there is a choice between good and evil when it comes to every pronoun, every book, every magazine and newspaper, every film, every social-media account, every breakfast, every dinner, every relationship and friendship, etc. The monstrosity of cancel culture is in its refusal to make room for private life, private conscience, and private differences. The tendency to make totalizing creeds out of political ideologies is by no means reserved to the obvious old jackboot-and-manifesto ideologies of socialism, fascism, etc. Ayn Rand’s pseudo-philosophy of Objectivism was, as has been noted elsewhere, in practice an aesthetic and a complete lifestyle demanding allegiance not only in politics and economics but in everything from taste in music to interior-decorating styles.

The totalizing instinct is to be found everywhere, including in a now-famous passage from Ibram X. Kendi’s new book, Everybody Who Disagrees with Me Is a Racist. (Oh, that’s not the real title, but it may as well be.) Professor Kendi writes: “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.” Which is to say: This ideology demands affirmation and obedience for everybody everywhere in all circumstances — pure totalitarianism. Progressives used to scoff at that kind of “if you’re not with me, you’re against me!” talk, when it was deployed by George W. Bush in the campaign against jihadists. Of course Professor Kendi is writing the purest nonsense inasmuch as it is very easy to think of policies adopted by institutions that neither sustain racial inequality nor ameliorate it. (The limit of ten items or fewer — fewer, not less, damn your eyes! — in the express lane does not have any meaningful racial consequences. Especially at Trader Joe’s.) And even race-conscious policies get pretty complicated: California’s desire to use racial discrimination in college admissions would in theory make things easier for members of one racial minority (African Americans) while making things harder for members of another racial minority (Asian Americans). The doctrine of “intersectionality” is intended to help sort that kind of thing out by imposing a rule under which such decisions are basically left to a committee composed of Professor Ibram X. Kendi, Professor Ibram X. Kendi, and Professor Ibram X. Kendi. Dissenters will be cast into the outer darkness.

“Intersectionality” is a kind of mutant neighborliness in that it recognizes that people belong simultaneously to many different communities but attempts to impose hierarchical political discipline on the natural organic diversity of human life. Genuine neighborliness, on the other hand, accommodates genuine diversity, and it honors the different communities to which we all belong by treating them as real and meaningful human connections rather than as lines on a utopian org chart. In the abstract, this is what makes genuine human community possible. Practically, what it means is that I don’t want to see the restaurant down the street fail financially because I suspect its owners have a different view of abortion than I do. It also means that I prefer a community in which norms of privacy, toleration, and property rights are scrupulously observed to one in which casual vandalism is accepted as long as it is directed at sufficiently unpopular people. We cannot put people outside of the considerations of neighborliness without doing violence to the community as a whole. Neighborliness is necessarily inclusive, though it also is exclusive in the sense that it thrives best where boundaries and limitations are observed.

“And who is my neighbor?” a certain lawyer asked. As it turns out, there is a pretty good answer to that question, if you are willing to hear it. It begins with an ill-advised journey to Jericho. . . .

Words About Words

Frank Bruni of the New York Times writes:

[Trump] relied like no candidate before him on a new infrastructure of misinformation and disinformation, tweeting toward Bethlehem while his allies made Mark Zuckerberg their stooge. If you’re peddling fiction, Twitter and Facebook are the right bazaars.

“Tweeting toward Bethlehem” got my attention. In 1968, sometime National Review correspondent Joan Didion published a celebrated collection of essays titled Slouching toward Bethlehem. The title is a reference to W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” which in a mere 22 lines produces several phrases that have entered general usage, being well-known to people who never have read the poem: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”; “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”; “the widening gyre”; etc. It concludes:

. . . twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The “rough beast” slouching toward Bethlehem would seem to be a reference to the Antichrist, the final apocalyptic antagonist in the Second Coming. Robert Bork, the Supreme Court justice who might have been, wrote an influential book titled Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline. Gomorrah is the Biblical city linked in the Christian mind with Sodom, the twin cities of wickedness. Sodom lives on in linguistic infamy in sodomy, but there is no gomorrahmy, as far as I know. (Although I suppose the name does sound a little like gonorrhea, which it not very nice to read about but does provide the useful phrase “purulent discharge.”) So Trump is in Bruni’s estimate a kind of social-media Antichrist.

I am not at all sure the phrase “tweeting toward Bethlehem” actually means anything if you think about it very much, but it is a remarkable testament to the evocative powers of Yeats’s phrasing that even in various disfigured forms “slouches towards Bethlehem” kinda-sorta feels like it must mean something, and probably something profound.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A reader writes:

I just saw this in The Dispatch:  “. . . detainment, torture, and execution.” I wrote to them, saying, “I am no Kevin D. Williamson, but I think that the noun form of detain is detention.”  Not a fan of detainment. Thoughts?

Detainment and detention are slightly different words: Detention is the act of detaining, detainment is the condition of being detained: “The army’s detention of the prisoners” vs. “The prisoners’ detainment by the army.” The Dispatch sentence in question reads: “The heart-rending story details the detainment, torture, and execution of many thousands of innocent civilians in Syria and the ongoing effort to hold the perpetrators accountable.” So I suppose what The Dispatch wanted there was detention, not detainment.

I am sure they will appreciate the correctment.

Another thing: Yeats uses towards with an s; Didion, too. Bruni uses toward, no s, as I would normally be inclined to do. Most of the usage books give the worst answer about toward vs. towards: “equally acceptable,” which is completely unsatisfying. Americans and Canadians more often write toward, and the English more often write towards, as the Irish Yeats did.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.com

Home and Away

National Review is launching a new feature called “Capital Matters.” Think of it as applied capitalism, with news about business, finance, the economy, etc. Now you can get your business news from a source that does not write under the assumption that business is the root of all evil, and follow the markets with people who believe in, you know, markets. I hope you enjoy it. And if you have any ideas or suggestions, please email me at the address above.

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

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

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

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

Speaking in Los Angeles in 1987, the sainted Pope John Paul II had something to say about neighborliness. “We must be the compassionate ‘neighbour’ of those in need, not only when it is emotionally rewarding or convenient, but also when it is demanding and inconvenient. . . . Compassion is also called for in the face of the spiritual emptiness and aimlessness that people can often experience amid material prosperity and comfort in developed countries such as your own.” That which is empty is going to be filled with something. I cannot help but see in the current moment of ersatz moral hysteria an attempt to inspire a religious revival in the absence of a full and mature faith. And so we have flailing, ugliness, and incompetence. On a trip to Rome a few years ago, I heard people seeing great works of art for the first time wondering (and these are wonders) how it is that people living in a world lit only by fire (in William Manchester’s memorable phrase) created such things. The more interesting question is how it is that we do not, in spite of having superior tools and ample opportunity. Everybody knows those lines from Yeats, but very few of you could with a gun at your head recite ten consecutive lines from a living American poet. We should consider the possibility that our artistic decline and our religious decline are in some sense the same thing, distinct from and standing in contrast to our remarkable achievements in science and technology. We are not the first people to have some trouble answering the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

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The Grotesque American Wedding

(ASphotowed/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Welcome to The Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about politics, culture, language, pedantry, shenanigans, and sins both mortal and venial.

Listen to Jackie

“One hundred Irish politicians!” Janet Auchincloss’s daughter, Jackie, was set to marry John Kennedy, which meant her daughter was set to marry the Kennedy family’s social ambitions.

“The wedding will be just awful — quite dreadful,” Mrs. Auchincloss lamented. Jackie had wanted a small, intimate wedding, but Joseph Kennedy wanted to reinvent his grubby little clan as the American royal family. He got his way. He usually did.

They should have listened to Jackie.

American weddings are often grotesque affairs, a weird mix of lacy white princess dresses and neck tattoos, Pachelbel and Bon Jovi. They weren’t always such spectacles. Here are the Eisenhowers on their wedding day. If there are 16 young women with matching dresses of lavender taffeta, they are out of the frame. Here are the Hemingways, Papa’s unhappy first time around. Pretty low-key. I think it is unlikely that the future Mrs. Hemingway wore a plastic tiara and drank 18 cosmopolitans the night before.

(The groom might have.)

For many years, people typically got married at home, or in the home of a family member, in front of a small group of people. The only common alternative was a church. Even very fancy people with more elaborate weddings usually got married at home: When young Franklin Roosevelt married Eleanor, the bride was given away by her uncle, the president of the United States of America. The Roosevelts were, as Joe Biden might have put it, a BFD. They got married at the house of the bride’s grandmother (a pretty nice house) and then went on a week’s honeymoon not to Cancun but 88 miles away in Hyde Park, N.Y., where the groom was from. (They later took a three-month European tour.) When John D. Rockefeller’s daughter got married, she got married at the family home. (The particulars are pretty gaudy-sounding.) Calvin and Grace Coolidge were married in front of 15 people in her father’s living room. Coolidge was only 18 years away from the presidency.

The American wedding has been transformed in part by New World middle-class imitation of Old World royalty. White dresses weren’t socially obligatory for anyone except English debutantes being presented to the monarch for the first time; Queen Victoria’s white wedding dress is popularly credited for transforming that piece of court etiquette into what became the modern convention. (For a point of comparison, see Gerald and Betty Ford.) Diamond engagement rings, though not unheard-of, were in many quarters considered excessively showy, but that custom slowly worked its way down from the Archduke Maximilian of Austria to modern middle-class ubiquity.

The desire of the bourgeoisie to ape the titled aristocracy remains even in our own time: When her husband was the prime minister of the United Kingdom, Cherie Blair made a point of wearing a white dress for a meeting with the pope, which as a matter of ancient custom was a privilege reserved to Catholic monarchs. The Blairs wanted to be the Kennedys, and the Kennedys wanted to be the Mountbatten-Windsors. It is notable that Donald Trump is fascinated by a title of nobility, which he gave both to his imaginary friend/press agent and to his youngest son: John Barron (sometimes “John Baron”) and Barron Trump. The Trumps’ efforts to link their own family to the British royals is the stuff of a thousand cringes. There were not a hundred Irish politicians at Trump’s most recent wedding, though Billy Joel and the Clintons were in attendance.

It probably is not coincidence that Americans got very serious about the spectacle of the wedding right around the same time they began giving up on the idea of marriage. “Until death do us part” is tough, but a “big day” we can still manage. All you need is bad taste and money.

This brings me to the actual subject of today’s letter, which is, of course, debt.

Last week, Slate published a particularly insipid piece of sympathy journalism (it is part of a series) under the headline: “What It’s Like to Have $163,718 of Student Debt When You’re Living Paycheck to Paycheck: The story of Arthur Stallworth, age 36, from Silver Spring, Maryland.” Sympathy is a barrier to good journalism because it prevents the asking of necessary questions. (“Empathy,” which our politicians like to talk about, is not an emotion at all but a literary conceit.) For example: Mr. Stallworth reports a household income of $125,000 a year, which is not too bad for a man with an “online doctorate of education and interdisciplinary leadership.” There are lawyers and architects who do worse. (The report is silent about how much of the couple’s income comes from Mr. Stallworth and how much comes from his wife.) In spite of that income, he says he “couldn’t afford it” when his loan repayments rose . . . from $200 a month to $400 a month. Really? His household income is twice the national average; how is it that he is getting wiped out by a $200-a-month increase in a longstanding bill? The headline promises to tell us “what it’s like” to be in that guy’s shoes, so curiosity is assumed. What’s the deal?

Likewise: Mr. Stallworth reports that his student debt was $100,000 when he got his doctorate five years ago, but today it is $163,718.20. That implies an interest rate in excess of 10 percent a year, but student-loan interest rates are generally a lot less than that. (Federal loans currently are at 0.00 percent because of the epidemic, but the rates run from 2.75 percent for undergraduate borrowers to 5.30 percent for unsubsidized graduate-student loans.) There’s probably a good explanation for how that happened, but that explanation isn’t in Rachelle Hampton’s story, which is supposed to be a story about debt but remains willfully vague on the financial details.

What is in the story, instead, are observations such as this one: “Halfway through, I reached the point where I was really, really done with Nebraska. I was always in PWIs [predominantly white institutions]. At first you don’t really recognize that stuff, but then people say things like, ‘You don’t have any hair.’ No, I have a fade. But they don’t know what a fade is.”

I am not entirely surprised that some predominantly white people in Nebraska do not have a satisfactory vocabulary for discussing tonsorial matters with African-American colleagues. It is not clear what that has to do with Mr. Stallworth’s personal debt situation. And that situation is extraordinary considering he got a “full ride” for his undergraduate degree, with a scholarship that covered both tuition and room and board. How does this actually happen?

And, then, the kicker: “I had to take out a loan from my retirement in order to pay for our wedding.”

At which point, I found myself saying out loud: “Well, no. No, you didn’t.”

You didn’t have to. It wasn’t obligatory. You could have gone to city hall in the morning and taken your friends and family out to a nice lunch afterward. (You know what they would have done? They would have thanked you. Most weddings are dreadful.) People do it all the time. Here, what he needed was a visit from Bob Newhart in therapist mode: “Don’t do that.”

Mr. Stallworth is hardly alone in his assumptions about what simply must be done. There is a great deal to dig into there, but, for the moment, I will conclude with this: The belief that you simply must have a burdensomely expensive dog-and-pony show to get married and the belief that you simply must have a “doctorate of education and interdisciplinary leadership” to lead an educational institution — and that both of these must be had even at the cost of assuming ruinous debt — are, at the foundation, the same belief, rooted in the same error.

A society unmoored from genuine values will embrace meretricious ones, just as a society disconnected from divinity will always find something to worship — what do you think is really going on in our ridiculous modern weddings?

Words About Words

From the Via Salaria to Salzberg, from Northwich to Dandi, the politics of salt has been a force in human affairs from the beginning. Like many other once-precious commodities, salt today is so cheap that it is literally given away. In spite of the legend, it is not true that salt used to be worth more per ounce than gold, but it was valuable enough to be used as a medium of exchange, which it was in China (according to Marco Polo’s reports), and in parts of Ethiopia into the 20th century.

In the late 15th century, Italy was convulsed by the “Guerra de Sale,” in which the Duke of Ferrara duked it out with the pope’s army and the Venetians. (I still kind of like the idea of a papal army.) The Venetians were gripped by blind rage when Ferrara bit into Venice’s negotiated monopoly on salt production. The salty merchants of Venice were not to be denied. Tacitus reports a first-century battle over control of a salt-producing river at modern Germany’s Bad Salzungen.

It is not the case that Roman soldiers were paid in salt. (I am sure I have repeated that legend as fact, and repent of it. There is nothing more embarrassing than arrant pedantry that turns out to be errant pedantry.) The modern word salary is derived from the Latin salarium, meaning “stipend,” which is related to the Latin word salarius, meaning “pertaining to salt.” But the connection between the words is lost to us, and there is no evidence that Roman soldiers were ever paid in salt or that the salarium was, as another theory holds, an allowance for salt. As the classicist Peter Gainsford concludes after a very interesting discussion, the notion of Roman soldiers being paid in salt is “pure fantasy.” Gainsford (the author of Early Greek Hexameter Poetry) writes that this story begins with conjecture among Latin dictionary-writers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

No ancient source ever actually uses salarium to mean ‘salt allowance’. It’s a guess. It isn’t a terrible guess, but it’s still a guess.

It may be the case that the soldiers’ salarium was somehow related to Roman salt taxes, but we don’t really know.

And where there are no answers to be found, answers will be invented.

While we are at it, there is no reason to believe that the Roman army plowed salt into the fields after razing Carthage in order to render the land sterile. There is no mention of this in the ancient world, and the Romans wanted Carthage to keep producing grain — it was an important supplier, and the Romans were often worried about food security. There were many salt rituals in the ancient world, and casting salt over something as a curse seems to have been a part of several different traditions. See, for example, Judges 9:45: “All that day Abimelek pressed his attack against the city until he had captured it and killed its people. Then he destroyed the city and scattered salt over it.” Salt is in fact used as a fertilizer and long has been. This is probably what Jesus is referring to in calling His disciples the “salt of the earth,” that, if it loses its distinctiveness, becomes of no use to the soil.

The phrase “worth your salt” is not, as far as anybody knows, of Roman origin, and it does not appear in English until the 19th century.

Rampant Prescriptivism

After last week’s discussion of reflexive pronouns, a reader writes to suggest my sentence, “The president is only hurting himself” would be better written, “The president is hurting only himself.” There is the issue of the idiomatic expression, but I think these two sentences are answers to different questions. Whom is the president hurting? “Only himself.” What is the president doing on Twitter? “Only hurting himself.”

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@nationalreview.com. 

Home and Away

One of the reasons cancel culture has started to grab the attention of nice white people with impeccably progressive credentials at elite institutions is the fact that it is no longer being deployed mainly or more energetically against right-wingers but against moderate and occasionally nonconforming people who are not right-wingers, as in the recent purge of first James Bennet and then Bari Weiss from the New York Times opinion section. A conservative columnist can be put in a zoo cage labeled “Conservative,” and the Times opinion pages, which still pretend to be part of a journalistic operation rather than a political one, will grudgingly accept that. But Bari Weiss was an editor, not a columnist, and she was free-range, not quarantined in the conservative ghetto.

Hence her ouster. More in the New York Post.

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

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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

To support National Review Institute, go here.

In Closing

I meant for this to be a newsletter about debt, but it ended up being one about idolatry. I don’t think those troubles are unrelated. The connection is sterility. Think of the golden calf, the linkage between sodomy, blasphemy, and usury in Dante’s Inferno, the lifeless “pound of flesh” in The Merchant of Venice, or Ezra Pound’s “Canto XLV,” informed by Dante, and its account of fruitless usury: “With usura, sin against nature . . . stonecutter is kept from his stone, weaver is kept from his loom.” In case you miss the point, Pound spells it out in emphatic all-caps, as though he were your uncle on Facebook: “Contra Naturam.”

In the Times’ account of the Rockefeller wedding mentioned above, the writer chronicles the “costly and elegant” wedding presents heaped up for display in the reception rooms. I wonder what the father of the bride, who is estimated by some to be in real terms the wealthiest man to have lived in modern times, was trying to demonstrate with that display. The bride died of a stroke at age 40, and the groom retired to a villa outside Florence to write books about “panpsychism.”

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

Politics & Policy

The Venezuelafication of American Politics

President Donald Trump waves to reporters from the South Lawn of the White House, July 11, 2020. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Welcome to The Tuesday, a newsletter about politics, language, culture, and three or four other things that were bothering me over the weekend.

The Pragmatic Virtues

Some of our friends on the right were just real, real, real big on virtue a few years back. Bill Bennett, you may recall, built for himself a splendid little virtue empire: The Book of Virtues, The Children’s Book of Virtues, The Children’s Treasury of Virtues, The Book of Virtues for Boys and Girls, The Book of Virtues for Young People, The Book of Virtues Cookbook: Now You’re Cookin’ with Virtue!, Moral Compass: Stories for a Life’s Journey, The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family, Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism.

(I made up the cookbook.)

Conservatives started talking a whole lot about virtue during the Clinton years, when they were outraged (Bennett gave us The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals) by the president’s hound-dogging and endless lying, and about the fact that so many of our Democrat friends seemed to enjoy being lied to, provided they were skillfully lied to, which was Bill Clinton’s specialty: “Slick Willie,” unlike “Tricky Dick,” wasn’t an entirely condemnatory epithet. That really stuck in a lot of Republican craws, it rankled and it vexed, and at the turn of the century every third Republican pundit was writing and talking as though he were Cato the Elder (Cato Censorius, ho, ho!), if not Cincinnatus. That, in turn, was hard to take for much of the general public — and a hell of a lot harder to take for the people who knew them. Not because these men had the ordinary and common moral failings (Bennett was mocked for being a gambler, Newt Gingrich for being Newt Gingrich) that we all have in varying degrees, but because so much of that virtue entrepreneurship was so obviously insincere.

And then came 2016, when the CEO of Virtue Inc. linked arms with Generalissimo Grab ’Em By the P***y. Bill Bennett sniffed that we should get off our “high horse” and get on board with Trump. Trump critics, Bennett insisted, “suffer from a terrible case of moral superiority and put their own vanity and taste above the interest of the country.” Suddenly, all that old-fashioned virtue stuff was effete, namby-pamby, and effeminate. It was — surprise — a deficiency in virtue! It was only virtue-signaling, a simulacrum of virtue, lacking in the authentic manly virtues supposedly embodied by Donald Trump. The commissars of virtue insisted that criticism of Trump’s character was only a shallow and snobbish revulsion at his etiquette and his style, a girlish squeal at his manful and virtuous flouting of manners, convention, and other “elitist” niceties. His dishonesty was, they insisted, only a kind of pragmatic showmanship, and confounding only to those unschooled in the realities of the rough-and-tumble world of business.

Bennett suggested that Trump’s critics were only put off by his being “crude.” This line of criticism almost always and everywhere is dishonest, and obviously dishonest: Agree with the critics or not, the rap on Trump has always been about his actual character, the sort of man he is, not merely his etiquette, his accent, or how he ties his tie. But as a matter of cheap rhetoric, it is easy to shed a few crocodile tears over “the tweets” and the vulgarity while defending the program.

We talk about virtue as though it were some otherworldly thing, of little interest — or a positive hindrance — to people whose main concern is “winning” in this world rather than judgment in the next. But that gets it all wrong. As the Romans and the American founders understood, the cultivation of republican virtues is eminently practical — it is very difficult to maintain a free society without those virtues.

If you have spent very much time in the sort of places we used to describe as the Third World, you probably have noticed a paradox: These countries often have government everywhere, in your face, all the time, and yet they go largely ungoverned. For example, Venezuela and Kazakhstan both have much larger public sectors than does Germany, as measured by public-sector workers’ share of the total work force. Measured by government spending as a share of GDP, Libya has nearly twice as much government as Sweden, but it is not nearly as governed. Ecuador and Belarus spend relatively more on the public sector than the United States, Switzerland, or Japan, but they don’t have very much to show for it. In physics, there is a distinction between force and power — force is just that, a push or a pull, whereas power refers to the rate at which work is done. (Come at me, pedants.) There is an analogous division in states, which may have x number of troops at arms or y number of administrators working on a problem without x or y really telling you anything about the state’s capacity for achieving its ends. Having the manpower or the money or some other kind of brute force isn’t necessarily enough to get the work done.

(I do not mean to make a doctrinaire libertarian point here; there are well-governed countries with relatively small public sectors and well-governed countries with relatively large public sectors. Spending and payroll matter, but it matters what the spending is spent on and what the people on the payroll are paid to do and whether they do it.)

Scholars of government think a great deal about trust, consensus, legitimacy, and other related issues. One way of thinking about that whole batch of things is to consider the question of cooperation. High-trust societies tend to be high-cooperation societies and to have high levels of consensus about the direction of policy and few if any questions about legitimacy. Trust is a key ingredient in the secret sauce of the happy Nordic countries and in well-governed places such as Switzerland and Canada. When you have lots of trust and lots of cooperation, you can run programs more effectively, administer agencies with more confidence, and count on both the public and the bureaucrats to conduct themselves with a reasonable level of honesty and scrupulousness. When that succeeds, it produces a virtuous cycle: Working well creates the conditions for working better; trust and trustworthiness buttress one another; the prestige that accrues to administrative work attracts the sort of people who add to that prestige.

When trust fails, the virtuous circle turns vicious, and then the state has to find other ways to encourage or compel cooperation in order to function. The spirit of nationalism is cultivated by Beijing and by Budapest to serve that purpose — by emphasizing a common national identity (often with the aid of a common external enemy or a hated internal minority group) and a sense of solidarity and shared destiny, the state can achieve a high level of buy-in and consensus, at least for a time, in spite of corruption or incompetence. The socialist ideology of the USSR served much the same purpose, as a variation on its main theme does in contemporary North Korea.

From that point of view, it is not surprising that the two poles of American politics have drifted toward socialism and nationalism at a time when the effectiveness and trustworthiness of our public institutions is in decline. (I am here reminded of Bryan Caplan’s observation that the United States has no classical-liberal party but two moderate national-socialist parties, one a little more socialist, the other a little more nationalist.) Neither those who are in charge of the institutions of our government nor those who would like to be in charge of them can with straight faces associate their efforts with the creditability of those institutions. Nor are they intellectually or philosophically equipped to build on what trust and trustworthiness remain in them

Roger Stone committed a raft of felonies in order to protect the political interests of Donald Trump, who has now commuted Stone’s sentence as a reward for Stone’s political loyalty. Stone’s misdeeds include collaborating with the Russian intelligence cutout known as “Guccifer 2.0,” though I am inclined to credit the defense he has offered there — that he is too stupid to understand that he was being manipulated by the GRU. The specific crimes of which he was convicted go straight to the question of trust: witness-tampering and perjury. As National Review’s editorial put it: “He was justly convicted of these charges and deserved to go to jail; in our system of justice, self-parody is no defense.”

Trump’s self-serving commutation of Stone’s prison sentence is another chip off the U.S. government’s foundation of trust and legitimacy. No one can claim to be surprised by this behavior — this is exactly what any reasonable person would expect from Donald Trump and from his associates. It is what Bill Bennett would have expected if he had understood his own books or had not forgotten what they say. The heavy price we will pay for Trump’s presidency is not that we will feel bad as a people about his lack of virtue and have a good cry over it but that his lies and abuse will leave the government itself, along with the political system and our civic culture, degraded. It is not a baby step but a mighty stride down the road to the Venezuelafication of American politics, and if you don’t think we have our own Hugo Chávez out there ready to step forward and fill the trust gap with ideology and an enemies’ list, then you are not paying very close attention.

Civic virtue is not a pleasant abstraction; still less is it a merchandising opportunity. It is a necessity if we are to have an open and transparent government based on trust and cooperation. The alternatives to that are autocracy and anarchy in varying combinations and proportions.

Words About Words

You know who will send you to your dictionary every five minutes? Edith Wharton. In the first few pages of The Custom of the Country, she refers to “the batrachian countenance of Peter Van Degen” and to the “grotesque saurian head” of the same. Animal adjectives are popular with fiction writers, who need lots of them, and with political columnists, who need only a few of them, mainly asinine, mustelid, and ovine. Wharton, probably under the influence of William James’s Principles of Psychology, sometimes takes a kind of physiognomic approach to characterization. (Wharton’s relationship with the fashionable eugenics movement of her time is a complicated subject.) Many fiction writers do that, trying to almost literally (almost literally, Mr. Biden) paint a picture for readers. That is interesting: Among writers, novelists have an easy — maybe the easiest — way to describe the internal condition of a character and can tell you anything they choose about a character’s personality and motives — about a character’s character. But still they often prefer to lean heavily on exterior description of visual cues, as though they were journalists. (Which many of them are or were.) Wharton covers the interior and the exterior with equal skill, and, if you haven’t read her in a while (or at all), you have the opportunity to be delighted by some astounding sentences. Do yourself the favor.

Saurian, lizard-like, you’ll easily derive from dinosaur. Wharton uses it to suggest crocodiles and alligators. (Here is a place where Wikipedia really shines: “The clade Sauria was traditionally a suborder for lizards which, before 1800, were crocodilians. . . . Sauria can be seen as a crowned-group of all modern reptiles, including birds, within the larger total group Sauropsida, which also contains various stem-reptile groups.”) Batrachian means frog-like or toad-like. Froggy and toady are both good English words, but froggy is an adjective and toady is a noun and a verb, also very useful to political columnists, the times being what they are.

Wharton doesn’t just throw that exotic adjective out there to show she knows it. It is matched with the common verb shine to very nice effect. The setting is an opera box:

The entr’acte was nearly over when the door opened and two gentlemen stumbled over Mr. Lipscomb’s legs. The foremost was Claud Walsingham Popple; and above his shoulder shone the batrachian countenance of Peter Van Degen. A brief murmur from Mr. Popple made his companion known to the two ladies, and Mr. Van Degen promptly seated himself behind Undine, relegating the painter to Mrs. Lipscomb’s elbow.

Funny names, too. Ever met an Undine? Me, neither. But they did things differently in the 19th century. From the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Undine, also spelled Ondine, mythological figure of European tradition, a water nymph who becomes human when she falls in love with a man but is doomed to die if he is unfaithful to her.” You can see the possibilities for a novelist.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A Washington Post headline read (before being changed): “Trump the victim: President complains in private about the pandemic hurting himself.” No, no, WaPo — that is not quite how you use the reflexive pronoun. The president complains about the pandemic hurting him is just fine.

There are a few different ways to use a reflexive pronoun, and the one that seems to be confusing the Post here is the case in which the subject and object of the sentence are the same: He hurt himself, which avoids the ambiguity of He hurt him, where him could refer to anyone. This works for both direct and indirect objects: The Lord helps those who help themselves; You can see yourself in the mirror; See for yourself. The thing to keep in mind is coreference, meaning that both words in the clause refer to the same person or entity. Sometimes, as in [You] see for yourself, one of the words may be implicit. In some idiomatic expressions, the reflexive pronoun doesn’t really do much in the clause: Prepare yourself for trouble is not very different from Prepare for trouble, and He didn’t know how to behave himself is pretty much the same as He didn’t know how to behave. But Ice Cube’s line definitely needs the reflexive: “Check yo self.”

The other common use of the reflexive pronoun is for emphasis: The pope himself says so.

About that headline, consider this: The president complained about the man who was hurting him vs. The president complained about the man who was hurting himself. You have coreference in the same sentence but in pretty clearly separated clauses: The president complains, the pandemic is hurting him; you could write, The president complains that the pandemic is hurting him. But: The president is only hurting himself with his Twitter habit.

And, sometimes, you just have to flow with the go.

The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason. Why:
Lest I revenge. Myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain.

 Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.com


About those one-armed paper-hangers, a reader asks: “Would National Review be interested in publishing my op-ed ‘As a direct descendent of John Paul Jones, here is my take on the Ford-class aircraft carrier’?”

I’d like an essay about John Paul Jones, as long as it doesn’t ramble on.

Another reader defends the old blueblood Philadelphia suburbs from charges of first-initial-middle-name pretentiousness: “I must protest this line: ‘If you go by your middle name and enjoy the Main Line affectation of C. Montgomery Burns, F. Lee Bailey, or J. Edgar Hoover.’ I was raised in Newtown Square, a close (but socially distant) observer of Main Line culture and norms. C’mon, everyone knows that middle-naming is a southern thing.”

The Main Line is what it is partly thanks to J. Edgar Thomson of the Pennsylvania Railroad. And then there are oil magnate J. Howard Pew of Ardmore, Bryn Mawr College president M. Carey Thomas, M. Night Shyamalan of Gladwyne . . . and the very man who gave us the WASP: E. Digby Baltzell, who was from Chestnut Hill, which I think is close enough to count even if it is on the wrong side of the city limit.

(Carole Springer, who lived in Chestnut Hill and covered Main Line society for 50 years, would have thrown something at me for writing that.)

Home and Away

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. It is the 100 percent empathy-free reading you will want for the election season.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to Mad Dogs & Englishmen here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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

To support National Review Institute, go here.

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

Take No Advice from One-Armed Paper-Hangers

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

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

As a One-Armed Paper-Hanger . . .

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


A Timely Renaissance History Lesson

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

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

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


It takes only one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the kid. The kid was an idiot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words About Words

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

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

Rampant Prescriptivism

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

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

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.com

Home and Away

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

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

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

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In Closing

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

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