The Tuesday

U.S.

Who Is My Neighbor?

Campaign signs outside a polling place during early voting in Dallas, Texas, November 2, 2018. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
We are not the first people to have some trouble answering the question.

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.

Neighborliness

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.

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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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