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 Paper-Hanger” essay may take the booby prize.
The “As a One-Armed Paper-Hanger” essay is based on a claim of special standing to speak to a particular issue. That special standing is based on an experience, usually traumatic or familial, that is in no way related to actual expertise. “As Someone Who Is Dying of Leukemia, Here Is What I Think About Health-Care Reform,” “As the Mother of a Child Who Died in a Horrifying School Shooting, Here Is What I Think About Gun Control,” “I’m a Very Very Rich Guy Who Supports Higher Taxes on Very Very Rich Guys,” etc.
In fact, having leukemia doesn’t give you any special knowledge about the economics of health-insurance subsidies or insurance regulation, losing a child in a terrible crime does not give you any special insight into crime prevention or Second Amendment jurisprudence, and being a very very rich guy doesn’t make you an expert on anything, necessarily, though a very very large share of very very rich guys seems to think otherwise.
The “As a One-Armed Paper-Hanger” essay is almost always a sympathy play, with politicians and newspaper editors exploiting the victims of horrible events or awful diseases in the service of the ideological orientations under which they already are operating. (The other kind of sympathy play is the authorial-martyr model: “Look at me heroically endorsing something that is superficially against my own interests!”). It is relatively rare, for example, to see an essay in a big liberal newspaper headlined “As the Mother of a Child Who Died in a Horrifying School Shooting, I Support the Second Amendment,” although you do see an essay like that every now and then. (People also see Bigfoot every now and then.) “As a Latino, I Support Building a Dozen New Natural-Gas Pipelines” is every bit as intellectually sensible a headline as “As a Latino, I Oppose Building a Border Wall,” but it doesn’t have the same dumb emotional appeal.
Never mind that sick people have as wide an array of opinions on health care as healthy people do, that people come away from violent experiences with very different opinions about gun control and much else, that there are poor people who think taxes on the rich are too high as well as rich people who think taxes on the rich are too low, that Latino people have different views on immigration, etc. The range of expression in the typical American newspaper’s op-ed pages is like paint-by-numbers for people who can’t count past four.
A particularly stupid variant on the “As a One-Armed Paper-Hanger” essay is the distant-relation essay, for example Monday’s New York Times column by some jabroni with a name that sounds like a bad amateur parody of an old National Review byline: Lucian K. Truscott IV. Thank goodness he puts both the K and the IV in there so as to distinguish him from all the other Lucian Truscotts out there.
(And it really is too bad that the guitarist who styles himself Yngwie J. Malmsteen is not Yngwie J. Malmsteen IV.)
If you have come across the byline of Lucian K. Truscott IV in the past, then you may know that he is a distant relative of Thomas Jefferson’s. In fact, almost every article that I can remember having seen from him (not a huge sample, I admit) mentions that connection. Being a distant relation of Thomas Jefferson’s is, in part, the profession of Lucian K. Truscott IV. And that is sufficient to get him into the pages of the New York Times with an exercise in pointlessness headlined “I’m a Direct Descendant of Thomas Jefferson. Take Down His Memorial.”
As any direct descendent of Adam could tell you, being a distant relation of Jefferson’s gives no one any special insight into the contemporary controversy over Washington’s monuments. Does Lucian K. Truscott IV have anything interesting to say on the subject of the Jefferson Memorial? No, Lucian K. Truscott IV does not have anything interesting to say on the subject of the Jefferson Memorial. The Times knows that he has nothing interesting to say, but the Times thinks it is interesting that he says it. The Times is wrong about that. There is not one original thought or interesting sentence in the essay. But Lucian K. Truscott IV still would very much like you to join him on his stroll down memory lane, complete with some truly banal scene-setting that I will be obliged to interrupt at a few points:
When my brother Frank and I were boys visiting our grandparents at their home in Virginia, just outside of Washington, we used to heckle [sic; that isn’t what heckle means; what, did the Times opinion page fire its editor?] our grandmother until she would drive us into town so we could visit the Smithsonian museum on the Mall.
As we crossed the Potomac River on the 14th Street Bridge [speaking of memorials, the 14th Street bridge was renamed in 1958 for Marshal Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, who helped Americans win the Revolution, and then renamed again for Arland D. Williams Jr., who died in an airplane crash] the Jefferson Memorial stood off to the left, overlooking the Tidal Basin. [It still does.] I don’t remember ever visiting the memorial, even though it was just a short walk from the museums. It was located on the Mall, along Jefferson Drive, naturally. [It is in West Potomac Park off Basin Drive.]
We were surrounded by the history of Thomas Jefferson when we made those visits to our grandparents. We would drive down to Charlottesville with our grandmother to visit our great-aunts and our great-grandmother — and they would take us up the mountain to Monticello and drop us off to play in the house and on the grounds. They treated Monticello like it was the family home, because in a way it was: They were great-granddaughters of Jefferson. They had been born and grew up only a few miles away at a family plantation, called Edgehill.
I guess that’s why my brother and I, the great-grandsons, took the Jefferson Memorial for granted.
It goes on in much the same elderly-Washington-tour-guide-indiscriminately-verbalizing-his-field-of-vision mode until Lucian K. Truscott IV musters, if not quite an argument, then a little bit of rhetoric
It’s a shrine to a man who famously wrote that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence that founded this nation — and yet never did much to make those words come true.
that is rather less fleshed out than Frederick Douglass’s indictment of Jefferson. And here I do not even mean the real-life Frederick Douglass but the joke version in Epic Rap Battles of History, who has a much pithier take on Jefferson’s failures but who is not — poor fellow! — distantly related to an 18th-century historical figure in the news.
Naturally, it never occurs to Lucian K. Truscott IV or to the editors at the New York Times that Thomas Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” was not put forward as a promise that might one day in the future be made to “come true” like a fairy tale but instead was a statement of something believed to be true at the time Jefferson wrote it — which is, in fact, more damning for the Founders than the clumsy interpretation of Lucian K. Truscott IV. That is another reminder that people who cannot write clearly cannot think clearly, and that elevating sympathy plays over actual argument invariably produces mush.
I have spent many years writing about free trade and tariffs. And I am, if the family Bible is to be believed, distantly related to William McKinley, who backed a very stupid tariff scheme in 1890 and ended his career by managing to get himself murdered by an anarchist. But I must resist the urge to start shopping around my “As a Distant Relative of William McKinley, I Think Tariffs Are Pretty Dumb” essay.
The times being what they are, I calculate that I am less likely to sell that essay than I am to be murdered by anarchists.
Words About Words
Celibate does not refer to someone who abstains from sex; celibate describes someone who forgoes marriage, usually, but not always, in accordance with a religious vow. (Note for Millennials: It once was assumed that to forgo marriage was also to forgo sex — quaint, right?) We tend to associate celibacy mostly with the Catholic priesthood, but it turns up in interesting places. Oxford tutors, for example, were under a rule of general celibacy until 1882, even though the Church of England had abolished mandatory clerical celibacy way back in 1548. English household servants were subject to a norm of celibacy, a practice that was replicated in English settlements in the New World. As Professor Kathleen M. Brown of the University of Pennsylvania writes, “servile celibacy” was thought to be necessary to prevent conflicts within the household — ensuring that there was no question of whether a servant in any given situation was subject to her employer’s authority or to her husband’s.
For questions of sex as such, as opposed to the question of marriage, we have the word chaste, although that one is a little complicated, too, with Christians writing of “marital chastity,” which doesn’t mean what it looks like it might mean. In its formal Christian sense, chastity means sexuality in its proper context, which is different for the married and the unmarried. That leaves us with abstinence, a word that acquired a slightly bad odor after a mighty campaign to give it one, and the dusty sounding continent. C. S. Lewis, writing about a naturally virtuous race of aliens in Out of the Silent Planet, wonders at
a species naturally continent, naturally monogamous. And yet, was it so strange? Some animals, he knew, had regular breeding seasons; and if nature could perform the miracle of turning the sexual impulse outward at all, why could she not go further and fix it, not morally but instinctively, to a single object? He even remembered dimly having heard that some terrestrial animals, some of the “lower” animals, were naturally monogamous. Among the hrossa, anyway, it was obvious that unlimited breeding and promiscuity were as rare as the rarest perversions. At last it dawned upon him that it was not they, but his own species, that were the puzzle.
But the English have left that all behind. Americans, too. And so “celibacy” remains mostly a Catholic thing, one of the most misunderstood of all Catholic practices, leading to some amusingly incoherent anti-Catholic stereotypes: that they hate sex and have too many children.
William F. Buckley Jr., like Lucian K. Truscott IV, used a middle initial and an adjective that were not, strictly speaking, necessary: Everybody knew who Bill Buckley was, and though his father was a notable man in his own right (the editor of the Cactus yearbook!), WFB was not likely to be confused with his father in his public life.
It once was the custom to drop “Jr.” after the death of one’s father. “Jr.” is used only for a son with exactly the same name as his father; every now and then, you will meet someone with the same name as his grandfather or great-grandfather, but not the same name as his father, who may call himself John Smith II, which is correct, even if it can’t help looking like a movie sequel. Initials are useful when you have a common name (I know of four working writers named Kevin Williamson), or if you go by your middle name and enjoy the Main Line affectation of C. Montgomery Burns, F. Lee Bailey, or J. Edgar Hoover.
It is a short walk from distinctive to pretentious.
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