The Tuesday

U.S.

The Poison of Nostalgia

Family watching television, circa 1958 (Evert F. Baumgardner, National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia)

Welcome to The Tuesday, my new newsletter. I decided to call it The Tuesday because I wanted to kind of bake the deadline into the cake and keep this thing on a more regular schedule than Mad Dogs & Englishmen.

Home and Away

In case you missed it, you might enjoy my National Review magazine article on the Aspen housing market, part of a three-story package on American housing and why it is — or at least seems — so expensive. An excerpt:

The bus stops in front of a house that is for sale — not a time-share or a condo but an honest-to-goodness free-standing house, albeit a two-bedroom, one-bath affair that is less than 1,000 square feet. It is listed at . . . $3 million, making it one of the cheapest houses on the market in Aspen. The houses for sale within a few blocks range from $6 million to $31.5 million. One-bedroom condos commonly command a million bucks.

And that is why a family earning nearly $300,000 a year with just under $1 million in assets — enough to put it well into the nation’s 98th income percentile — is, in this absurd and absurdly beautiful place, eligible for housing assistance.

Aspen is a city that needs more affordable housing for millionaires.

In the same issue, you can also read Michael Gibson on the Bay Area’s housing problems and Kevin Erdmann on “The Unbuildable American Home.”

Here is my review of Ezra Klein’s new book in Commentary, in which I report that the volume contains some interesting social science (choosing sides seems, even for not-obviously-rational reasons, to be deeply imprinted in our DNA) but that Klein’s analysis is predictable, unimaginative, and mostly wrong. Look for my review of Eleanor Randolph’s excellent The Many Lives of Michael Bloomberg in the forthcoming issue of Philanthropy, which published my review of Winners Take All in the fall of 2018. And here is my latest in the New York Post, on Bernie Bros and their blacklisting campaign.

From the archives — a few things I’ve been up to in the past year or so: An interview in Neue Zürcher Zeitungwhich is fun for a Helvetiphile such as myself. (The article is in German.) Here’s me being a little overexcited on the Bill Maher show. Here is that nice young man Ben Shapiro reviewing my most recent book, The Smallest Minority, in Commentary. And here is a fun essay I wrote for the Wall Street Journal trying to figure out what to think about a man judging him by the books on his shelves.

My National Review archive can be found here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here. You may not have seen: Livro Politicamente Incorreto da Esquerda e do Socialismo (Em Portugues do Brasil)No, I don’t really know why, either. I didn’t know this existed until I started seeing ads for it on social media. Apparently, there’s a Korean version, too, but I’ve never seen it. The original Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism remains horrifyingly relevant.

Unapologetic Prescriptivism

My sense of timing is, sometimes, pretty terrible. I decided to start writing more about language right at the same time the great Bryan A. Garner (author of Garner’s Modern English Usage and The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, and editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary) began writing about language for National ReviewSee his wonderful essay on the evolution of “they.” But I’m going to do it, anyway.

This week’s bugaboo: “advocate for.” Do not write this. The “for” is already there: advocate = ad vocare, “to speak to” or “to speak for” or “to call for.” Grover Norquist advocates tax cuts; he does not advocate for tax cuts. “Advocate for” is a redundancy, like “ATM machine” or “dirty hippie.” The question here isn’t so much “Is it wrong?” but “Is it ugly and stupid?”

Please send your language questions or remarks to thetuesday@nationalreview.com.

Southern Coordinates

Some jabroni at Salon writes: “With William Barr at the Justice Department and Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court and Senate Republicans voting in lockstep with Mitch McConnell, living in Donald Trump’s America feels like the South won the Civil War.”

That is a very peculiar claim.

Bill Barr, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch are men of Irish Catholic background hailing from New York City, D.C., and Denver, respectively: citadels of establishment liberalism, not centers of Confederate revanchism. Gorsuch comes from a prominent Colorado family but moved to the D.C. suburbs for prep school and spent most of his life there; moving away to prep school is not one of the traditional rituals of Southern life. The attorney general is the Manhattan-born son of a Jewish convert to Catholicism who was headmaster at Dalton — not an obvious candidate for General Lee’s army. Barr went to Columbia and GW Law; Kavanaugh, Yale and Yale Law; Gorsuch, Columbia and Harvard Law. None of these is a hotbed of neo-Confederate sentiment.

Senator McConnell comes from Kentucky, which would have been inconvenienced by a Confederate victory in the Civil War, since it was not part of the Confederacy.

Donald Trump is from Queens, but he apparently thinks Gone with the Wind was a good movie. If you happen to find yourself in Austin, at the University of Texas, you can see the dress Scarlett made from the draperies at the Harry Ransom Center.

“South,” in the minds of some progressives, now simply means “evil.” I suppose we are meant to believe that these men are secret admirers of chattel slavery, which is, of course, preposterous.

Funny thing about Barr and Kavanaugh et al. There are two prominent groups of Americans who believe that there are too many Catholics in public life — progressives, who complain that there are too many Catholics in the courts, and the Ku Klux Klan. Perhaps it is not Bill Barr of New York City whose heart beats in a southerly way.

Taking the South as a kind of shorthand for reactionary tendencies in American life is silly and illiterate. But people who write those kinds of sentences might — just barely — have a point. The more intelligent version of that notion is the idea that some kinds of nostalgia bring with them an odor of repression, that white men who are nostalgic for the 1950s or the 19th century or the 15th century (this is a National Review newsletter) might be accused at the very least of being insufficiently attentive to the daily abuse and humiliation (and worse) visited upon African Americans, women, homosexuals, and others during those good ol’ days. That’s part of what it is about “Make America Great Again” that creeps out a lot of people.

Of course, it is entirely possible to indulge wistful and romantic attachments to agrarian life in antebellum Georgia, or to frontier life in the Old West, or to Hoover-era or Eisenhower-era small-town America while simultaneously appreciating that slavery was a genuine horror, that Indian massacres were crimes against humanity, that Jim Crow was an intolerable wrong, that life in the 1950s — and now — was marked by petty bigotry, recreational cruelty on the part of the powerful, sexual exploitation of vulnerable women, etc. Mentally and emotionally normal adults — if you can find them — are able to walk and chew psychological gum at the same time.

The same dynamic shapes our conversation about race. There are a great many white people, and conservative-leaning people of all races, who are inclined to say: “Things are a lot better now than they were in the 1960s, and racism in the United States is nothing compared to racism in a lot of other places.” And that’s true. But what a lot of people hear in that is, “Why can’t you shut up and stop complaining?” And they aren’t wrong to object to implicit chiding. You will encounter much more open, plain, and rancid racism in other countries than you normally do in the United States, where racism of the plain kind is déclassé in addition to being sincerely rejected by most people. And the United States of, say, 1970 is very much a foreign country, racially. But at the same time, life remains radically different for white and black Americans. African Americans remain much more likely to end up poor, imprisoned, or sent to an early grave, and if many black Americans are not especially eager to endure homilies on how much progress we have made or how much worse things are in Brazil, it is difficult to fault them for that, just as it is difficult to fault them for being suspicious about the nostalgia of white men.

Nostalgia in politics is a poison. Right-wing anti-capitalists such as my friends Tucker Carlson and Michael Brendan Dougherty are at heart, I think, nostalgists, attached to an idea — a fiction — about middle-class and blue-collar life in the postwar era. But as Yuval Levin and others have persuasively argued, many figures on the Left are nostalgists of the same kind — and nostalgic for the same years: the post-war years. They simply attribute the golden character of those years to different things. Conservatives see the 1950s as a time of social and political conservatism, booming business, and American confidence; Bernie Sanders et al. remember those years as the apex of the American labor unions, a time of high tax rates on the wealthy, an expanding welfare state as the New Deal gave rise to the Great Society, etc.

We are the spoilt brats of history. It is true, as I and my colleagues document in the current issue of National Review, that housing has become very expensive in many parts of the country, often for reasons of artificial scarcity. At the same time, I wince a little when I hear men of my generation, or men in their thirties, complaining that their grandparents were able to easily buy a house when they were in their twenties, but that they cannot do the same. In truth, you can buy my grandparents’ house, or one very much like it, for almost nothing. But none of us wants to live in a 700-square-foot house in Borger, Texas, with no air-conditioning and one bathroom. That 1950s standard of living some of my right-wing friends claim to covet can be had — and it can be had cheap. What cannot be had is the culture and social life of the Eisenhower era. But if it could — would you really want it? The iPhone in your hand suggests to me that the answer is not so obvious.

Also: Some of my conservative friends who are always looking to disprove evolution spend their free time researching carbon-dating methodology or the configuration of the optic nerves in domestic chickens, looking for evidence that evolution is false. I would bring to their attention the fact that the Salon jabroni mentioned above is, if his biography is to be believed, the great, great, great, great grandson of Thomas Jefferson.

Closing Thoughts

Today is Mardi Gras, which used to be a Southern Catholic thing (and, hence, a New Orleans thing) but now has joined Halloween on the list of American holidays that are simply a pretext for adults to dress like clowns and get drunk. I am not one to complain about “cultural appropriation,” but Mardi Gras really does not make any sense without Ash Wednesday and Lent. It may be that the more austere penitential Christian observances simply suit my non-demonstrative personality better than does dancing in the street, but I welcome the quiet of this season.

Winston Churchill, hearing Clement Atlee praised for his modesty, supposedly grumbled, “He has a great deal to be modest about.” Perhaps Lent is less interesting for those who do not have a great deal to repent of or to atone for. For me, Lent could be twice as long — it could be all year. I have a good friend who is a Presbyterian pastor, and he is devoted to Spurgeon’s devotional. Spurgeon makes good reading: “By perseverance,” he writes, “the snail reached the ark.” I identify with that snail. Spurgeon, a man of the 19th century, never got to meet the prophet Tom Waits, who sang, “We’re chained to the world, and we all gotta pull.” Somewhere between those two poles, I think, one might catch a glimpse of the truth.

Until Tuesday,

Kevin D. Williamson

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