The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity, and revolt.
— Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, “Manifesto of Futurism,” 1909
For years, I wrote that the American Right has a philosophy, while the American Left has only an enemies list.
The Left’s enemies list has mutated as the socioeconomic center of American progressivism has shifted from labor unions and poor cities to the commanding heights of businesses and culture, from the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and “Which Side Are You On?” to the American Bar Association and Fleabag. A generation ago, radical feminists and gay-rights activists were quite frank in their desire to destroy the institution of marriage, the traditional family, and the culture built on top of those arrangements. Contemporary progressives instead have settled into rank and comfort, secure behind the walls of their invisibly gated communities. Defining the limits of respectability is, in fact, the central mode of contemporary progressive politics. Contemporary American progressives do not engage with conservative ideas or nonconforming political opinion — they simply attempt to define those as infra dig and outside of the boundaries of that which polite intellectual society is obliged to consider.
The Right has reciprocated, in its way. And that is a big part of what the Trump phenomenon is all about: so-called nationalists who despise the commanding heights of American culture, politics, and business, along with the institutions associated with them. Hence the bumptious anti-“elitism” of contemporary conservatives whose creed is “American Greatness” but who sneer at the parts of the country where most of the people and the money are, who sing hymns of national glory while abominating the East Coast, the West Coast, the major cities, the Ivy League, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the major cultural institutions (and, indeed, high culture itself as effete and elitist), the political parties, trade associations, broad swathes of the economy (“financialization”), newspapers — even the churches, as conservative American Christians (from Catholic to Evangelical) embrace a new antinomianism based not in religion but in the politics of cultural resentment.
None of this really comports with the facts on the ground in that “Real America” we hear so much about on talk radio. In the real America, rural farmers are part of a very large and complex network of industrial and scientific innovation, international trade, and business innovations made possible by the “financialization” dismissed by populists Right and Left. American farmers rely on scientific work done at elite universities, on technology from Silicon Valley, on high finance, and — horrors! — on international trade, not least trade with China. Some of them employ a fair number of immigrants, too. The American farmer is as much of a “rootless cosmopolitan” as any Connecticut hedge-funder or California code monkey.
If your project actually were “American Greatness,” then these facts would have to be taken into account. (A bit of humility would help, too: Do you really think you know what share of the U.S. work force should be engaged in manufacturing vs. finance vs. everything else? How did you come to know that?) The real world is complex, and it is not neatly fitted to either ideological notions or tribal allegiances. But if your project is takfiri politics — creating an enemies list and casting your antagonists into the outer dark — then all that matters is denigrating Harvard or the New York Times or Facebook or Elon Musk, because what you are involved in is not nation-building but only a status game.
There is much that is in need of reform in American life. But reform is not very much in fashion among populists, who are ensorcelled by the much more exciting prospect of revolution — and destruction. (Conservatives should be suspicious of excitement.) These remixed Jacobins are part of King Henry VIII’s “mass that . . . follows anything that moves.”
(That’s King Henry VIII the character from A Man for All Seasons, not the historical English king.)
And we have seen their kind before, for example in the Italian Futurists. The Italian Futurists were contemptuous of institutions and tradition — and of their ancestors and heritage — eager for epoch-defining conflict, big on he-man “alpha male” posturing (“contempt for women” was one of the virtues listed in the “Manifesto of Futurism”), cultishly nationalistic, partisans of “energy and rashness,” Year Zero thinkers dismissive of all that came before them. The Futurists engaged in sophomoric romantic posturing (“Our hearts were filled with an immense pride at feeling ourselves standing quite alone, like lighthouses or like the sentinels in an outpost . . .”), celebrated conflict (“We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world”), and pledged to “demolish museums and libraries.” They asked, rhetorically: “Do you want to waste the best part of your strength in a useless admiration of the past, from which you will emerge exhausted, diminished, trampled on?”
Familiar stuff, as was their adolescent rhetorical climax: “Standing on the world’s summit we launch once again our insolent challenge to the stars!”
The stars, I cannot help but notice, are still there.
Human progress and American greatness stand on a foundation of much less exciting work: amending a law to make it a little bit more just, improving crop yields a little bit year after year, the monotonous grind of fundraising and committee-sitting for worthwhile things, teaching literature and history to one callow teenager at a time, raising good children, doing jobs that are difficult, thankless, and obscure.
These are things done by grateful people. Revolutions are hatched by the other kind.
Words About Words
Honoré de Balzac’s novel Eugénie Grandet, translated by M. A. Crawford, contains some wonderful old English words. The story concerns the competition for the hand of the titular heiress. A scene: “He kissed Eugénie on both cheeks and offered her a workbox with fittings of silver-gilt. It was a trumpery enough piece of goods, in spite of the little shield bearing the initials E. G. carefully engraved in Gothic characters, a detail which made the whole thing appear more imposing and better finished than it in fact was.”
I cannot recall another instance of trumpery being used as an adjective. The noun trumpery, which means something that appears to be of value but is not, has gone through several iterations. As you might guess, it is derived from the French root trompe, meaning “deceive,” as in trompe l’oeil, a style of decorative painting that creates an illusion (e.g., painted-on paneling or millwork, or a painted landscape seen through a painted window), or the great Pixies album Trompe le Monde (“fool the world”). Its subsequent sense of superficial showiness is based on that underlying sense of deceit. Merriam-Webster defines trumpery as “worthless nonsense” or “trivial or useless articles” or “tawdry finery.” The last of these is described by the Merriam-Webster editors as “archaic.” To my eye, the word is archaic in general — but very useful nonetheless. It is due for a comeback.
Because trumpery suggests the name of the current president of the United States, some fun has been had with it by the president’s critics, to the extent that Snopes felt obliged to create a “trumpery” entry in which it affirms that, yes, that is a real English word that means showy, deceitful, worthless, and fraudulent. Snopes really leans into it, in fact, listing these synonyms: balderdash, baloney, bilge, blather, claptrap, codswallop, drivel, foolishness, garbage, hogwash, humbuggery, stupidity, tommyrot, and twaddle.
The need for words such as trumpery will outlive the political career of Donald J. Trump. This is a golden age of trumpery. A word I write frequently is meretricious, meaning “superficially attractive or impressive but having no real value.” Meretricious comes to us from the Latin meretrix, “prostitute,” and its oldest English meaning was “pertaining to prostitutes and prostitution.” It came to mean something like trumpery in that it describes that which is painted, done up, and adorned in a superficial way. In a more general sense, it means pretentious. Both trumpery and meretricious carry a denotation of tawdriness but emphasize the deceptive and superficial character of the attraction.
We need honest language for deceitful times, precise language for vague ones.
I received a full bouquet of complaints about my use of incentivize last week. “Isn’t that the kind of pretentious corporate managementspeak you criticize?” Yes, it is. It is possible to write about language, and manners, and morals without implicitly offering up oneself as a model of perfection.
In other news . . .
I’ve been asked to address then vs. than. I am not entirely sure this is a question of rampant prescriptivism: Most literate English speakers know which is which, and my impression is that this is more often a simple typo than a genuine misuse of words. But, that being written: Then is an adverb having to do with time, meaning next in order or in a sequence. It also is used to mean consequently, usually following a clause introduced by if: “If you can’t afford it, then you shouldn’t buy it.” Both of those uses are related to its sense of following. Than is a conjunction or preposition having to do with comparisons: “He writes more than I do” or “That suitcase she is dragging through the airport weighs more than her.”
There is some controversy here. From Merriam-Webster:
After 200 years of innocent if occasional use, the preposition than was called into question by 18th century grammarians. Some 200 years of elaborate reasoning have led to these present-day inconsistent conclusions: than whom is standard but clumsy • T. S. Eliot, than whom nobody could have been more insularly English — Anthony Burgess; than me may be acceptable in speech: a man no mightier than thyself or me — William Shakespeare; why should a man be better than me because he’s richer than me — William Faulkner, in a talk to students; than followed by a third-person objective pronoun (her, him, them) is usually frowned upon. Surveyed opinion tends to agree with these conclusions. Our evidence shows that than is used as a conjunction more commonly than as a preposition, that than whom is chiefly limited to writing, and that me is more common after the preposition than the third-person objective pronouns. In short, you can use than either as a conjunction or as a preposition.
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Home and Away
Sun Tzu wrote that spurning the use of spies out of pride, or because the sovereign resents the expenditure of a little amount of gold, is the height of cruelty — because it leads to more bloodshed than is absolutely necessary. My own view of U.S. foreign policy is that a rich country such as ours ought to get what can be had in exchange for mere money, and that direct if discreet bribery presents what might be in some circumstances an excellent option for dealing with something like, say, the powers that be in North Korea if Kim Jong-un should in fact be dead or disabled.
I argue the point here in the New York Post.
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Wednesday is the feast day of Catherine of Siena, saint, mystic, and doctor of the church. In a rare poetic moment, Wikipedia describes her as dying “exhausted by her penances.” There are many bumper-sticker inspirational quotations attributed to her, but her actual writing is much more interesting.
Avarice proceeds from and feeds pride, the one follows from the other, because the miser always carries with him the thought of his own reputation, and thus avarice, which is immediately combined with pride, full of its own opinions, goes on from bad to worse. It is a fire which always germinates the smoke of vainglory and vanity of heart, and boasting in that which does not belong to it. It is a root which has many branches, and the principal one is that which makes a man care for his own reputation, from whence proceeds his desire to be greater than his neighbor. It also brings forth the deceitful heart that is neither pure nor liberal, but is double, making a man show one thing with his tongue, while he has another in his heart, and making him conceal the truth and tell lies for his own profit. And it produces envy, which is a worm that is always gnawing, and does not let the miser have any happiness out of his own or others’ good.
Ezra Pound wrote, “Literature is news that stays news.” You could probably put together a pretty good column for Anno Domini 2020 out of bits of Saint Catherine of Siena written in the 14th century.
Some news stays news.
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