The Tuesday

Politics & Policy

Some Free Advice for AOC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And surely they deserve an occasional thought, too.

Words About Words about Words

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

Does everyone want to be a snob?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rampant Prescriptivism 

Well, well.

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

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

(And to say, “an homburg.”)

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

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

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

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@nationalreview.com. 

Home and Away

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

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

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

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

My National Review archive can be found here.

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In Closing

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

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