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.
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.”
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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.
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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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