Category Archives: Words

Shakespeare, he’s in the alley, but Dylan’s got a Nobel Prize


Dylan at the Civil Rights March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

Finally, the Nobel Prize for Literature goes to a writer whose work I both know and appreciate:

Bob Dylan was named the surprise winner of the Nobel prize for literature in Stockholm today “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

Speaking to reporters after the announcement, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, said she hoped the Academy would not be criticised for its choice.

“The times they are a’changing, perhaps,” she said, comparing the songs of the American songwriter, who had yet to be informed of his win, to the works of Homer and Sappho.

“Of course he [deserves] it – he’s just got it,” she said. “He’s a great poet in the English-speaking tradition. And he is a wonderful sampler, a very original sampler. He embodies the tradition and for 54 years now he has been at it, reinventing himself constantly, creating a new identity.”

Danius said the choice of Dylan may appear surprising, “but if you look far back, … you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, performed, often together with instruments, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan. We still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it. Same thing with Bob Dylan – he can be read and should be read. And he is a great poet in the grand English tradition.”…

Trying to remember the last time this happened for me, I looked back at the list of past winners.

Let’s see: There was V.S. Naipaul in 2001 — I’ve been meaning to read something by him, but haven’t gotten to it….

Ah, William Golding in 1983! Pass me the conch, and I’ll tell you what I know about him.

I’ve read one book by Gabriel García Márquez (1982). Didn’t like it. Even though I thought it would be awesome, being about Simón Bolívar, whom I had been taught to revere in history classes in Ecuador. Instead, it was just… unpleasant… wearying.

1976 — Surely I’ve read something by Saul Bellow… nope. But I have read Bernard Malamud and Chaim Potok, in my defense.

1969-1971 — A three-year streak! I mean, I’ve read “Waiting for Godot,” The Gulag Archipelago and at least one poem by Neruda.

Steinbeck in 1962! Now we’re talking…

1957 — I’ve read The Stranger by Camus. Didn’t like it.

We’ll stop with Hemingway — the one person on this list I have really read avidly — in 1954. That covers my lifetime.

As far as my being able to relate, Dylan blows all but Hemingway away. (And yes, I’m embarrassed to admit this way that no one will say to me, “you’re very well-read, it’s well known.” But this is a blog where we tell truths, is it not?)

This is amazing. Something is happening, and I don’t know what it is. No, wait: I do. Boomers are finally truly in charge. Yay, us! It’s gear, it’s fab, it’s boss, it’s tuff, it’s righteous. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand, etc….

The interesting debate we could have had, under other circumstances


Let’s set aside for a moment this contest of character and pretend we have the luxury of talking about ideas in this presidential election.

Were that the case, the most interesting moment in last night’s debate would have come at this point:

RADDATZ: … This question involves WikiLeaks release of purported excerpts of Secretary Clinton’s paid speeches, which she has refused to release, and one line in particular, in which you, Secretary Clinton, purportedly say you need both a public and private position on certain issues. So, Tu (ph), from Virginia asks, is it OK for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues? Secretary Clinton, your two minutes…

Let’s set aside the loaded wording of the question (“two-faced”), and look at the underlying issue, which speaks to the nature of leadership and the ways we communicate in a representative democracy.

Can an honest person have a public position that differs from what he thinks in his heart of hearts? Yes, he (or she) can. In fact, there are times when he or she must.

As a longtime editorial page editor, I’m quite familiar with this. Most of the time, our editorial position was consistent with my own personal position. But we operated by consensus — I was not the only member of the board — and what we ended up with was not always exactly what I thought. I deferred to my colleagues, at least to the extent of modifying the position so that we could get everybody on board. And once the decision was made, I did not publicly say things to contradict it, because that would have militated against our consensus. I had a duty as leader of the board not to undermine its positions — even on the extremely rare occasions when our official position was very different from my own, such as when we endorsed George W. Bush over John McCain in 2000.

But my care with my utterances in order to keep the board together was nothing compared to what a president faces.

The president of the United States daily, if not hourly, faces situations in which it would be grossly impolitic, unwise, and even harmful to the country to say precisely what he or she personally thinks or feels about a situation. A president must be diplomatic, not only with representatives of other nations, but with multiple contending and overlapping constituencies right here at home. This is why a president is surrounded by people who are talented at helping choose precisely the right words needed to help move things in a desired direction. It would be grossly irresponsible, indeed a dereliction of duty and perhaps a deadly danger to the country, for a president simply to spout off from the gut without pausing to temper the message (see “Trump, Donald”).

People who don’t work professionally with words are sometimes pleased to call carefully moderating one’s speech “lying.” Those of us who work with words know better. You can say the same true thing many different ways, and how you choose to say it can make all the difference between communicating effectively and having the desired effect, or failing miserably.

Back to the debate

Secretary Clinton responded this way to that loaded question:

As I recall, that was something I said about Abraham Lincoln after having seen the wonderful Steven Spielberg movie called “Lincoln.” It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment. It was principled, and it was strategic…

Did you see the film? If so, you know there was a lot more to Lincoln than the fine words in the Gettysburg Address. He may have been the most skilled, determined, clear-eyed, illusionless man ever to hold the office — and the most effective. (The only two men I can imagine coming close to him in these regards were FDR and LBJ.)

The film shows Lincoln involved in the noble task of permanently saving our country from the stain of slavery, going beyond what fine words or even four years of unbelievable bloodshed could accomplish. The Emancipation Proclamation had been a stratagem in winning the war (and one he had held back from issuing, with flawless timing, until the political climate was ripe for it), an ephemeral, self-contradictory thing that did not truly free the slaves. He needed something that went far beyond that; he needed to amend the Constitution.

And he pulled out all the stops — all the stops — in getting that done. Set aside the unseemly spectacle of promising government jobs to lame-duck congressmen — that was routine horse-trading in that day. Let’s look at the central deception — and the word is apt — that was essential to getting the 13th Amendment passed.

Lincoln knew that once the war ended, Congress would see little need to ban slavery — and the war was in danger of ending before he could get it done. In fact, a delegation led by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens was on its way to Washington to sue for peace. It would in fact have arrived if Lincoln hadn’t ordered Union troops to detain it some distance from the capital. While the delegation cooled its heels, Lincoln worked feverishly to get his amendment passed.

At a critical moment in the debate in Congress in the film, a rumor spreads that there is a Confederate peace delegation in the city. This threatens to defeat the amendment. Lincoln tells Congress that not only is there no such group in Washington, but that he does not expect there to be. He conveniently leaves out the fact that the reason he doesn’t expect there to be is because he has issued orders to that effect.

Another instance in which Lincoln has a public position differing from his private position is with regard to Republican power broker Francis Preston Blair. The reason the Confederate delegation started on its journey to begin with was that Lincoln had reluctantly allowed Blair to reach out to Richmond. Why had he done that? Because Blair urgently wanted peace, and Lincoln needed his support to keep conservative Republicans in line on the amendment.

So… Lincoln did these things — playing every angle, and saying what needed to be said to the people who needed to hear them –, and rather drawing our disapprobation for having done so, he is rightly revered.

As I said above, the only two presidents I can see even coming close to Lincoln in terms of political skill and effectiveness were Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Which reminds me of a contretemps from 2008. An excerpt from my column of January 20 of that year:

It started when the senator from New York said the following, with reference to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.”
The white woman running against a black man for the Democratic Party nomination could only get herself into trouble mentioning Dr. King in anything other than laudatory terms, particularly as she headed for a state where half of the voters likely to decide her fate are black.
You have to suppose she knew that. And yet, she dug her hole even deeper by saying:
“Senator Obama used President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to criticize me. Basically compared himself to two of our greatest heroes. He basically said that President Kennedy and Dr. King had made great speeches and that speeches were important. Well, no one denies that. But if all there is (is) a speech, then it doesn’t change anything.”…

Hillary Clinton was not my choice for president that year. Several weeks later, we endorsed Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination (right after endorsing John McCain — whom we would later endorse in the general — for the Republican).

Her point was that fine words (such as those with which her opponent excelled) are well and good, but if you want to see a good thing get done, you need someone who will roll up sleeves, dig in and do what it takes. Which LBJ never shied away from.

When she was a fresh grad at Wellesley, Hillary Clinton was dismissive of politics being the art of the possible. As she grew up, ran into brick walls of opposition and in other ways found how resistant the world could be to fine words and finer sentiments, she learned. Her concept of what it took to get things done — and of what things were doable — matured.

Hence what she said in that leaked speech.

I don’t say this to defend Hillary Clinton personally. As I said, I wanted to raise a point that we might discuss were we in a different situation. But we’re not in a different situation. Right now, our representative democracy faces supreme degradation, and possibly worse, if Donald Trump is elected. So we have that appalling threat to deal with, and fine points and ethical ambiguities are not the order of the day.

So pretend that speech — the one to the paying audience, not to Wellesley grads — was delivered by someone else. Think for a moment about the ideas being expressed, not the person expressing them.

It’s a question that all of us should wrestle with as we grow and mature. When I was a young and cocky editor, very free with my thoughts on everything, and to hell with whether others agreed, my then-boss posed me a question: Would you rather be right, or effective?

Of course, I wanted to be both. But what about when you can’t be?

Even the Gray Lady has been dragged through the mire

Bill Castronuovo, a former editor at The State, shared this with me today.

This is what Trump, the candidate from Howard Stern, has done to America. He’s dragged the Gray Lady, the most staid newspaper in America, down to the point that she has to publish gutter language in to cover what’s going on in the campaign for president of the United States.

He’s also caused my blog to get down on the same level in order to tell you about it.

And the world is not better for that having happened…


‘There is no such thing’ as ‘the media’


Long ago, when my friend and colleague Warren Bolton and I were both still in The State‘s newsroom, before moving to editorial — we’re talking maybe early ’90s — Warren helped lead some newsroom discussions on race.

The idea was help us all do a better, more informed job writing about subjects bearing on that issue, or set of issues, in South Carolina.

One thing I remember in particular was a meeting in which Warren and another African-American colleague urged us to avoid the habit of referring carelessly to “the black community,” as though it were some monolithic, coherent entity that thought and acted in unison, like a colonial animal.

I took that to heart because it made a lot of sense to me, and ever since I’ve hesitated to use that construction, as well as similar ones such as “LGBT community,” “Hispanic community,” and what have you. After all, we don’t write of, say, women as “the female community,” because most of us recognize women as a set of individuals containing too much diversity for such a generalization. We should follow suit with other broadly defined groups.

(Of course, it in part appealed to me because we in the white heterosexual male community are well known to prefer to deal with people as individuals rather than in terms of aggregations, something which sometimes causes members of other “communities” to counsel us to “check our privilege” and stop trying to destroy other groups’ sense of solidarity so that we may oppress them individually. Which we, both communally and individually, tend to find maddening. Smiley face.)

I am reminded of all this because of this piece in The Washington Post urging the great unwashed out there to stop referring to “the media” as though they were a single, coherent thing with one mind, acting in unison. An excerpt:

Please stop calling us “the media.”

Yes, in some sense, we are the media. But not in the blunt way you use the phrase. It’s so imprecise and generic that it has lost any meaning. It’s — how would you put this? — lazy and unfair.

As I understand your use of this term, “the media” is essentially shorthand for anything you read, saw or heard today that you disagreed with or didn’t like. At any given moment, “the media” is biased against your candidate, your issue, your very way of life.

But, you know, the media isn’t really doing that. Some article, some news report, some guy spouting off on a CNN panel or at might be. But none of those things singularly are really the media.

Fact is, there really is no such thing as “the media.” It’s an invention, a tool, an all-purpose smear by people who can’t be bothered to make distinctions….

This piece, by the way, was not written by “the media,” or even by The Washington Post. It was written by this guy named Paul Farhi who is one of many individuals who works at the Post. If you want to be properly pedantic about it (and who wouldn’t want to be that?), you would only say that “The Washington Post said” something if it was said in an editorial — an editorial being an unsigned piece by the Post‘s editorial board, not something written by an op-ed columnist or someone else whose byline appears on the piece.

Yeah, I know — confusing. But to keep it simple, you’ll sound a lot smarter if you don’t refer sweepingly to “the media” as doing or saying or thinking this or that.

And we in the media community (which includes the vast army of us who no longer have actual media jobs, and a more cantankerous crowd you are unlikely to find) will appreciate it….

OK, WHAT was the point of this reading yesterday?

Following up on Friday’s Faith and Family post…

I frequently have ideas for blog posts during Mass on Sunday, and then I promptly go home and take a nap or something and then get busy with other stuff on Monday and forget about it.

Which I shouldn’t do because, you know, He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sunday.

Jeremiah makes a deal.

Jeremiah makes a deal.

Anyway, yesterday I wasn’t at my own church — it was an Episcopal Church — but the readings are the same as ours, so I assumed the same question would have occurred to me. Unfortunately, the homilist chose the Gospel reading as his text — which was fine, except that the Gospel was a pretty straightforward cautionary tale, the one about the beggar Lazarus and the rich man who die and go to separate places, and didn’t need much explication to my mind.

What I had hoped somebody would explain to me was the first reading, the Old Testament one, which went like this:

No, wait! It wasn’t the same reading! We Catholics had an entirely different one, I find — and one that makes perfect sense to me in the context of the day’s theme (the Gospel readings were the same, and apparently the 2nd Reading, too, although I confess Paul’s letters tend to go in one ear and out the other — too much throat-clearing). You can find it here; it’s from Amos Chapter 6.

Here’s the Episcopal one, the one that confused me:

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.

Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of theLord.

And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

That’s from Jeremiah; the Amos reading is offered as an alternative.

Anyway, can someone explain to me why we were reading that Jeremiah passage? Why is it in the lectionary at all? What’s the moral of the story? Where’s the editorial point, to put it in my vernacular? God tells Jeremiah to do a real estate deal, and he does, and then goes into more detail about it than I’d want even if I were a real estate attorney?


Here’s my wild guess as to what the point is: I think it’s sort of, even when you’re in a time of great social upheaval (Nebuchadrezzar bearing down on Jerusalem), you should carry on with life and its dealings. If that’s true, then it’s related to one of my favorite OT passages, also from Jeremiah, on carrying on normal life even while in exile:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their fruits. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters. Increase there; do not decrease. 7Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the LORD, for upon its welfare your own depends.b

(And yeah, I love that one in part because the last bit is way communitarian.) But if that is the point, it’s made really awkwardly and obscurely. Other thoughts?

The way I used to write was positively Warthenesque


I’ve commented on this before, and I find myself wondering whether others experience it.

For my entire writing life, whenever I’ve looked back at something I wrote two or three years earlier, it’s always so much better than what I was writing at the time I looked.

For instance, today I was looking for a good link to go with another post, and somehow ran across this, in which I found a slightly different way to express my oft-expressed frustration with the artificially binary aspect of our politics. The immediate subject was Barack Obama:

Most political commentators, trapped in the extremely limiting notion that the politicians they write and speak about must either be of the left or right, can’t make him out. But he keeps making perfect sense to me. Perhaps I should send a memo out to the MSM letting them know that there’s a third way they can think of a politician (actual, there’s an infinite number of ways, but let’s not blow their little minds; one step at a time). There’s left (as “left” is popularly and imperfectly described) and right (as “right” is popularly and imperfectly described), and then there’s Brad Warthen. As in, “The candidate’s recent statements have been Warthenesque,” or “That was a distinctly Braddish move he made last week.”

It would open up whole new vistas for our national political conversation. Certainly a broader landscape than what we’re used to, with its limited expectations…

Yes! I liked that. And not just because it involved placing yours truly at the center of the political universe. No, it’s not Hemingway and still less Shakespeare (and frankly, now that I’m sharing it with you I’m not enjoying it nearly as much as when I ran across it an hour ago). But it was a nice, breezy, fun little bite that had a flair to it, and it made me smile a bit. Nothing special, just another way of expressing the UnParty idea. Another way of saying that for many of us in this country — I am but one of millions in this regard — the way the media write and talk about politics makes us feel left out. If only our ways of thinking were taken into account…

My staff photo from 1987: Back then I could WRITE...

My staff photo from 1987: Back then I could WRITE…

And I thought, for the millionth time, why don’t I write like that now?

But that’s always the way. I wrote that in 2011, and sometime in 2011 I no doubt looked back at something from 2005, when I first started blogging, and thought That’s the real stuff! Why don’t I have stuff like that now?

And in 2005, I was mooning over the first columns I wrote for The State’s editorial page in 1994 and thinking that was what punditry was all about; what had happened to me?

And in the early ’90s I probably ran across a box of old columns from when I was still at The Jackson Sun ten years earlier and thinking, that’s when I had the real fire…

I can’t wait until the year 2020, when this pooge I’m writing now will look like pure gold…

Barton Swaim on how Kaepernick fails to make his point


Columbia’s own Barton Swaim has yet another nationally published opinion piece out there, headlined “Kaepernick’s symbolism misses the point,” in The Washington Post today.

And unlike Kaepernick, Barton hits the mark.

You know how I’m always blathering about how I think street protests, among other unseemly forms of expression, are generally unhelpful? That’s what Barton’s on about. And the problem, as he identifies it, is imprecision. Quite right.

Noting that Kaepernick now protests that he was misunderstood, Barton writes:

He was right. It was a misunderstanding. And that’s precisely the problem with symbols and symbolic gestures in the realm of political debate — they’re understood by different people in different ways, and not always in ways consistent with original intent. By choosing not to stand (he sat on the bench during the anthem for the Aug. 26 game against Green Bay and knelt during the anthem for the Sept. 1 game in San Diego), Kaepernick wants to say something about racial injustice. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told the NFL Network after the Packers game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Kaepernick evidently has some strong views on this subject, but what are they, exactly? Does he believe, say, that most Americans are racists? That most police officers target African Americans for harassment? That the United States as a whole deliberately and systematically persecutes African Americans? Somehow I doubt he would agree with any of these things without qualification — and yet they are all rational inferences from his refusal to honor the flag of a “country that oppresses black people and people of color.”…

Indeed. Barton is a wordsmith, and seems to share my horror at the thought of expressing oneself without being specific and explanatory.

And yet we are surrounded by people doing precisely that, from tattoos to grand public gestures. Harrumph.

In an age when there is no barrier to blogging, for instance, there is no excuse for failing to explain oneself — especially when one has done something that shouts only one thing clearly: “Look at me!”

As young mothers tell toddlers, use your words.

Now, changing the subject slightly, Barton’s piece goes on to say:

When pressed further to explain his views after the Chargers game, he wasn’t helpful. What was he trying to convey? “The message is that we have a lot of issues in this country that we need to deal with. We have a lot of people that are oppressed. We have a lot of people that aren’t treated equally, aren’t given equal opportunities. Police brutality is a huge thing that needs to be addressed. There are a lot of issues that need to be talked about, need to be brought to life, and we need to fix those.” President Obama reinforced that message on Monday. “If nothing else,” the president said, “what he’s done is he’s generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.” Reminding Americans that they need to “talk about” and “deal with” a problem that already consumes them is not, perhaps, the wisest of political exhortations. And in any case, one wonders what nation in the history of the world has not had dire “issues” that needed to be talked about and dealt with. Has there ever been a nation sufficiently issue-free to merit Kaepernick’s reverence?

I call your attention in particular to this bit: “Reminding Americans that they need to ‘talk about’ and ‘deal with’ a problem that already consumes them is not, perhaps, the wisest of political exhortations.”

I’ve been told for all my adult life that we need to “talk” about race in America. And you know me; I have generally obliged without hesitation. I can talk all day and all night about such a thing, and on occasion can even bring myself to listen.

But I bring the point up now because, right after reading Barton’s piece this morning, I saw this other opinion item in the Post, headlined, “It’s time to stop talking about racism with white people.” Excerpts:

Why are we losing solid hours out of our day, wearing our fingertips numb on keyboards and touch screens in an attempt to explain to some dense dude-bro why “All lives matter” is a messed up and functionally redundant response to “Black lives matter”?…

If Colin Kaepernik’s decision to stand against social injustice by sitting during the National Anthem has shown us anything else, it’s that much of white America is more bothered by our methods of protest than they ever will be about the injustices we’re protesting. Let’s dispel the notion that if we only protested better, white people will miraculously become more receptive of our message and less scornful of our audacity in speaking out….

Black people, it is long past time for us to start practicing self-care. And if that means completely disengaging with white America altogether, then so be it….

Zack Linly seems to have given up on making himself understood at a fairly early age (I’m going more by the way he expresses himself in seeing him as young, but for all I know he could be as old as Brett Bursey). Which is sad. Because as Barton suggests — even though he, too, seems a bit weary of the conversation, we need to communicate better about these things.

But there’s hope! Mr. Linly and Mr. Swaim seem to have some promising common ground, judging by the cover photo the former chose for his Facebook page. They both have a sense of the futility of some street action. But then, I could be misunderstanding this message, too…


Yeah, but will he learn to WRITE?


I had to groan at this item I saw over the weekend.

Catholic High School for Boys in Arkansas decided to get tough with helicopter parents, posting the above notice on its doors:

The all-boys private school in Little Rock has long had a rule barring parents from coming to the school to drop things off — such as forgotten lunches, assignments and sports equipment — for their children, but parents occasionally forgot about it and had to be turned away at the front door. So the school decided to post a sign as a reminder as this school year got underway….

Yeah, OK, fine. You’re trying to instill personal responsibility in the boys. And maybe they will learn to remember their lunches in the future.

But will they learn to write at a school that sees “problem-solve” as a verb?

Would it have killed them to write, say, “Your son will learn to solve these problems in your absence?”

Brits are at their most creative when describing bad tea

Arthur Dent, yearning for a true cuppa...

Arthur Dent, yearning for a true cuppa…

This is something that I just realized.

All who have read Douglas Adams are familiar with this gem:

After a fairly shaky start to the day, Arthur’s mind was beginning to reassemble itself from the shell-shocked fragments the previous day had left him with.

He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea….

That one never fails to delight.

But recently, rereading Patrick O’Brian’s The Fortune of War, I was struck by the height of creativity to which he rose in describing Stephen Maturin’s suffering upon the occasion of his being served tea by Americans:

tea 1tea 2

… which, while drier, I found almost as delightful as Adams’ characterization.

Apparently, there is something in the experience of drinking bad tea that kicks the brains of British writers into a higher gear….


This letter is great, fantastic and YUGE!

Bill Castronuovo brought my attention to this letter that ran on the editorial page of the Sunday editions of the Tampa Bay Times (which was previously known and lauded as The St. Petersburg Times, making it one of the few newspapers I can think of that have expanded their focus area in recent years):


I don’t really see Trump as a letter-writer, or letter-reader for that matter. But if he did write them…

Here’s what I mean when I say I’m a ‘centrist’

I’m trying to blog smarter by converting long comments into separate posts. Here’s the latest.

In this case, I had — in the interest of using words economically — referred to myself as a “centrist,” as I frequently do. Both Bud and Harry Harris took exception to the reference.

I replied

Dang, dang, dang! I wrote this somewhat involved, extremely insightful comment a little while ago on my iPad, and lost wifi in the middle of saving it. Let me see if I can reconstruct…

Of course I’m a centrist, to the point that the term has meaning (more on that in a second). I’m an adherent of the postwar governing consensus, the area that Clinton and Blair tried to get us back to in the 90s. I disagree with those who would pull us way from it.

That said, “left,” “right” and “center” are fairly silly terms. I really don’t HAVE a comfortable place on the artificial left-right continuum, and trying to place me, or anyone who THINKS about issues rather than buying them off the shelf prepackaged, on that line can present problems. But since I’m not “left” or “right,” “center” is a convenient term to use.

It’s also convenient because I am for CORE values, not those on the fringes. Here’s what I mean by that…

Government is about solving problems together, or at least efficiently providing those basic functions that we have general agreement government should handle. So I’m interested in areas where the parties overlap, not the areas where they pull away from consensus. We need to identify and build upon those areas where we can work together. And if we get good enough at that, maybe we can branch out to some of the tough subjects.

For that reason, I generally don’t like dealing with Culture War stuff, and get upset when it looks like an election is going to be about such things. Bud says, for instance, he assumes I “still advocate” for traditional marriage. I wasn’t aware I HAD been advocating on that subject. At all. He also mentioned Blue Laws. At one point some years back I made a gentle, passing reference to the fact that opposition to blue laws is one of the sillier overinterpretations of the 1st Amendment’s Establishment clause. Having a sensible agreement to have a day without commerce and hustle-bustle is hardly thrusting a particular form of religion on anyone. It’s just a gesture to basic human sanity. And I say that whenever Doug and Bud bring it up, which they do a LOT, because such a sensible suggestion is DEEPLY offensive to their libertarian reflexes. But I can’t recall advocating or campaigning for such. The most I’ve said is that it’s a shame to see such a life-calming custom go away.

Seriously, when I start campaigning for something, everyone can tell. (See: Confederate flag.)

But back to my point — I don’t see it as productive to invest a lot of political capital in those things, because the fights over them drive us apart and make it harder to agree on the things that should be easy.

The problem these days is that the parties and associated interest groups have polarized us so much that the area of consensus has gotten smaller and smaller.

Bud thinks this is a GREAT year. Well, in a couple of ways it is, but not the ways he thinks.

First, among thoughtful, informed participants and observers, there’s a greater willingness to step out from the stupid left-right, Democratic-Republican dichotomy and consider candidates on their merits. Once people do that, you see the Bushes (whom Bud despises so much), Graham, Sasse, Romney, et al., distancing themselves from Trump or opposing him outright. The latest encouraging manifestation of that is Meg Whitman declaring for Hillary, and the formation of a PAC to encourage Republicans to vote for the lesser of two weevils.

Sure, there are still plenty of Republicans out there who think this is a normal, left-v.-right election and anyone who would support anyone but Trump is a liberal Democrat and therefore the enemy. But I prefer to celebrate the people out there who GET IT.

Also, with Trump as their standard-bearer the GOP has so abandoned the flag-and-country ground that the Democrats were able to co-opt it and position themselves as the party of traditional patriotism last week. In other words, the Dems celebrated the things that used to unite us all, rather than just concentrating on differences (the usual Identity Politics and class warfare stuff).

Of course, this deeply offended the centrifugal forces of our politics, who want to see us fly apart. For instance, Gen. Allen’s speech offended both the military-hating portions of the left and the Democrat-hating elements on the right.

But these are positive developments, to a “centrist” like me…


The habitual skepticism of the BBC, taken to new lengths

EDITOR’S NOTE: DUH! Someone point out that maybe the Beeb was saying “so-called Islamic State” instead of “so-called Islamic State TARGETS” — in other words, rightly doubting the terrorist’s legitimacy as “the Islamic State” — which is an appropriate form of skepticism — rather than doubting that the targets were actually associated with the terrorist group. This seems likely. In which case, I am officially an idiot. Never mind…

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

That’s the rule tyro journalists are taught from the start: Take nothing for granted; believe nothing that you haven’t checked.

But as much as American reporters may have internalized that, no one in this country takes it to the extremes that British media do. Even in their headlines, they attribute things that American media would not, putting the most routine statements of fact in quotes. For instance, today they have a headline that says, “Top Nigerian ‘internet scammer’ arrested.” Because you have to be careful — it may turn out he really IS a deposed minister who wants to share several million dollars with us.

This practice reached a new level today. I received this news alert today from The Washington Post:

WP alert

And this one right after it from the BBC:

BBC alert

I could see putting “Islamic State targets” in quotes, as the Beeb often does with government statements.

But “so-called”? To me, that’s just a few shades short of “liar, liar, pants on fire.”

Did the Beeb have some particular reason to doubt that these were actual ISIL targets in this instance — reason that escaped other news outlets?

The thing is, they had already covered themselves with “Pentagon says.” If the Pentagon had said we’d shot down pretty pink winged unicorns, you really wouldn’t need to distance yourself further, as long as you included the “Pentagon says.” No matter how scrupulous you are.

There’s such a thing as being too scrupulous by half, and I think the BBC accomplished that today…

Oh, by the way, in case y’all want to talk about the alleged U.S. airstrikes in Libya (“alleged” because, for all we know, there were no airstrikes at all!), this would be a good place to do it. Just ignore my pedantic ramblings…

The firing of Capt. Jimmy Morris

One of the great things about the internet, or so I’m told, is that everybody can publish anything they want any time for the whole world to see, without any professional editors getting in the way.jimmy morris

One of the truly awful things about the internet, I know from experience, is that everybody can publish anything they want any time for the whole world to see, without any professional editors getting in the way.

Self-publishing amateurs sometimes wonder, is there a boundary? Is there something I might say on the Web that will get me in serious trouble? Where is that line?

As a professional editor, I can tell you that the answers are, yes, hell yes, and somewhere in Capt. Jimmy Morris’ rear-view mirror.

Morris, a 16-year Columbia Fire Department veteran, ran screaming over that boundary with this Facebook post referring to the Black Lives Matter protesters who were blocking I-126 Sunday night:

Idiots shutting down I-126. Better not be there when I get off work or there is gonna be some run over dumb asses.

Apparently having read that back over, and deeply concerned that maybe he hadn’t been quite inappropriate enough, he added this an hour later:

Public Service Announcement: If you attempt to shut down an interstate, highway, etc on my way home, you best hope I’m not one of the first vehicles in line because your ass WILL get run over! Period! That is all….

The next day, he was fired from his job with the fire department.

Let’s just leave race out of this for the moment (ex-Capt. Morris is white; the Black Lives Matter protesters, in case you just aren’t paying attention, are not — and the station where Morris worked is in a mostly black neighborhood). Pretend there’s no such thing as race: Who, unless he’s blind drunk or something, thinks that’s an appropriate message for a ranking public official to post about the general public?unnamed (1)

Another, tougher question: What would be the motive for that message in a world where race was not a factor? What’s the cause of all that bile?

Since we live in world that does have the problem of race, we’ve come to recognize certain types of communications that derive their flavor from that factor.

And those messages have a distinctly familiar flavor.

There’s a lot more I could say about someone in such a position who responds this way to protesters who already believe that the public-safety sector has it in for people like them.

But I’ll step back now and let y’all comment…


Drawing a connection between Trump and Tillman

My old colleague and friend Jeff Miller brought this to my attention, as he had not seen anyone draw a direct connection between Donald Trump and Ben Tillman, although he was “Surprised it took this long.”

The relevant passage:

As the civil-rights movement burgeoned, Wallace repositioned himself to lead the white resistance and famously declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace, a political innovator of the first rank, pioneered the sublimation of racial rage into hatred of government, not just the federal imposition of black rights in a second Reconstruction, but government meddling generally. This anticipated the politics of Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, and the Tea Party because it connected Southern racial resentment to the anti-government libertarian economics of the business right. The explicit racism became latent and coded—a dog whistle. The stars of today’s Republican right are all practitioners of this art. But Trump went them one better.

“Trump doesn’t tweet dog whistles, he blasts foghorns,” wrote Washington Post op-ed columnist Eugene Robinson. In this, Trump echoes an earlier band of 20th-century Southern demagogues. Southern politicians such as Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo, South Carolina’s “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, and Georgia’s Eugene Talmadge were more blatant and direct than Wallace in demeaning blacks. And like Trump, they relished the fact that they were not about issues—for issues (other than race) mattered little in traditional Southern politics. Instead, they concentrated on providing a venomous, racist form of entertainment for the white working class—another parallel with Trump.

I have to disagree with the premise, though. I don’t think Trump is more overt than Wallace, or that he “blast foghorns” rather than “dog whistles.”

Mr. Articulate

Mr. Articulate?

The truth is that Trump is not articulate enough to blast any message clearly. He is well within the tradition of implying rather than directly stating, at least most of the time.

But that suggests to me one way in which Wallace was superior to Trump: He was far more articulate.

I watched a documentary recently about the annus horribilis 1968, and was struck by one thing: All of the candidates, including Wallace, had such a clear grasp of issues and expressed their views clearly as well.

Wallace was a hateful creep, but he was a hateful creep who could speak in complete sentences. He towers so far over Trump in that regard that it’s startling to go view those old clips, and compare them to the unintelligible mush that comes from Trump’s mouth.

Yeah, I know — you don’t think “erudition” when you hear “George Wallace.” But compared to Trump, he was the Algonquin Round Table

Members and associates of the Algonquin Round Table... Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott

Members and associates of the Algonquin Round Table… Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott

Cindi Scoppe’s Gonzales Award acceptance speech

Sorry about the quality of the photo. The light wasn't ideal...

Sorry about the quality of the photo. The light wasn’t ideal…

Yesterday, as I mentioned, was my day for awards ceremonies. The best, for me, was the one at The State at which Associate Editor Cindi Scoppe received the paper’s Gonzales Award (named for the paper’s first editor, who was shot and killed on Main Street by the lieutenant governor in 1903).

It was the second time she had received the award, having gotten it in 1999 as well.

Bud Ferillo, Bob McAlister and I had written letters supporting her nomination, which is why we were there.

The work for which Cindi was honored took place during her first months alone, as the last remaining member of the editorial department. (There were once nine of us.) I addressed the significance of that in my letter supporting her:

When it comes to cold, dispassionate, hard-eyed assessment of South Carolina government and politics, no one touches Cindi Scoppe. Not in 2014, and not in 2015, either.

But in 2015, she did something else as well. She grew. She still did everything she had always done, the stuff no one else could do, but she added a couple of new ingredients: Heart and Soul.

There was a time when she didn’t have to do that sort of writing, and that comforted her. She liked being, in her own assessment, the board’s “Designated Mean Bitch.” When empathy and violins were called for, she was more than happy to let other associate editors “resonate” with the proper emotion for the moment – and some of them were really good at it. She would stick to the hard stuff.

But by mid-2015, there were no other associate editors. Warren Bolton – an ordained minister who could speak to the heart as well as anyone who had ever served on the board – left in the spring, and by June, Cindi was alone….

That sort of sets up what Cindi had to say in her acceptance speech. Here it is, shorn of some personal acknowledgments at the beginning:

The day after Dylann Roof slaughtered those nine innocents, Bertram Rantin stopped by my office to chat. I probably said I knew I needed to write something about the massacre but I had no idea what to say. Because what our community needed, what our state needed was not policy prescriptions but emotion and understanding. What was needed was RESONATING. And I don’t do resonating.

And Bertram said, you know, we used to have two people who could speak to this sort of situation. And isn’t it ironic that this would happen just weeks after we lost both Warren Bolton and Carolyn Click.

We talked some more about other things, and he left, but his words stayed in my head. And at some point, I realized that I had to step up to the task. I realized, as Brad wrote in his letter supporting my nomination, that I had to grow. I had to become a writer I had not been willing to.

Three thousand years ago, when God wondered aloud who he could send to speak to his people, the prophet Isaiah answered saying “Here am I, send me.” I think that’s one of the coolest passages in the Bible. Christians and Jews see that as a great act of faith. But it could also be seen as an act of dedication, of commitment to a cause, to a calling.

And don’t we all have a calling? Isn’t that what journalism is?

Shouldn’t we all be willing to ask, in the secularized iteration of Isaiah’s response: “If not me, who? If not now, when?”

Isn’t that the commitment that all of us need to give to our craft, to our community?

Now, except for Paul, there’s no one on the second floor who should be doing what I do routinely – advocating for policy positions. It’s probably not often that you should be writing about your personal experiences. Certainly not about how your faith informs your life decisions, or how it relates to public policy.

But what I had to do last year – after the massacre and a few months later, after the flood – is something every one of us can and should be willing to do every day: Look for where we can make a difference, fill roles we might not be comfortable filling, grow, if necessary, into the bigger demands of our jobs.

In his supporting letter, Bob McAlister said this about our jobs:

“I have spent my professional life in South Carolina’s political/media axis and have seen the media, especially newspapers, evolve. Of this I am certain: Our citizens have never needed good journalism more to help them wade through the complexities of life and the chaos of the Internet.”

As newspaper staffs grow smaller and the cacophony of self-interested voices grows louder and objective truth becomes increasingly optional, what each one of us does becomes exponentially more critical.

I would urge all of us to focus on the critical nature of what we would do: Not duplicating what others are doing, but providing our readers with important information they can’t get anywhere else. I urge you all to be truth-tellers, not just stenographers.

Today people in public life just make stuff up..

I can remember a time when it simply didn’t occur to journalists that we needed to verify basic facts from someone in a position of authority. Oh, we needed to watch for spin. We needed to make sure they weren’t manipulating numbers or not quite telling the whole story. But if a governor said half the job applicants at the Savannah River Site failed drug tests, it was safe to assume that was true. Not anymore.

Unfortunately, there’s no way we can fact-check every single thing that public figures say. We can’t even fact-check every single thing a governor says.

But at the very least, we can do this: When people say things we know are not accurate, and we report what they say, we can point out the facts. We can say this is what the law actually says. This is what was actually spent. Or this is what the audit actually recommended.

This isn’t being an editorial writer. This is being an authoritative voice. This is being a journalist. This is something I did as a reporter. It’s something y’all do sometimes as reporters. It’s something we all need to do more of. We need to help our readers understand what is true and what is not. We need to give our readers the facts and the context they need to make informed decisions. It doesn’t matter whether we agree with those choices or not; it matters that they are informed.

Of course, as Jeff will remind us, we need to write things that people will read. And this is the hardest part. It’s never been easy to get people to read the stuff they need to know, and now we have metrics that show, at least in the online world, how little they read it. So it’s very tempting to just give up and give people what they want. That’s the easy way to drive up our unique visitor numbers.

It is not the right way.

The right way is keep trying to figure out how to turn what people need into what they want.

It is a daily battle. It is a battle that I often lose.

But it is a battle that I absolutely must keep fighting.

It’s a battle that you absolutely must keep fighting.

We have big and difficult jobs, and they are getting bigger and more difficult every day. And we have to stretch and grow to fill those jobs.

We have a calling. We work for our community.

Not to entertain our community. To inform our community. To give our readers the tools they need to be active citizens.

It is not an overstatement to say that our system of self-governance depends on our willingness to fulfill our calling.

Amen to that.

The most jargon-y sentence I’ve heard today

It's hard to recapture those heady days. That's the then-head of the ADL standing on the opposite side of MLK from RFK.

It’s hard to recapture those heady days. That’s the then-head of the ADL standing on the opposite side of MLK from RFK in June 1963.

I listened with interest to a piece on NPR today, from which I derived three things:

First, there was the main topic — the efforts by the current head of the Anti-Defamation League to recreate the heady days of the 60s and reach out to help social-justice causes beyond those that directly affect Jews. It seems he’s having trouble with that because so many activists on the left, such as those with Black Lives Matter, have a problem the ADL’s support of Israel.

Second, I learned a word for a phenomenon I’ve been puzzled by for years. The word is “intersectionality,” and it’s that thing whereby advocates for this or that cause — say, folks in the the transgender demographic — make like the issues they face are just the same as those faced by another group, such as African-Americans. I say I’ve been puzzled, but I suppose the purpose is obvious enough, there being strength in numbers, not to mention the greater acceptance that might rub off from another group.

Thirdly and finally, I heard the most jargon-y sentence I’m likely to hear today, complete with the obligatory use of “impact” as a verb, which is what made me perk up and listen to the rest of it with growing mystification tinged with awe:

“I’m invested in bringing the voice of people most impacted into a space where [other] people may not be hearing that truth and really challenging them on their privilege and access…”

“invested in…” “the voice of people…” “impacted…” “into a space…” “may not be hearing that truth…” “challenging them on their privilege…”

And I’m guessing that “access” in this context is also some sort of political cliché that I’m just not hip to.

I don’t know about you, but I was impressed. It’s like somebody bet this guy he couldn’t go a day expressing himself in nothing but clichés, buzzwords, slogans and catchphrases, and he was well on his way to winning the wager.



I’m reminded, as I so often am at such moments, of a Doonesbury strip from about 1973. Phred, the Viet Cong befriended by B.D., has gone into retirement, but is called back up for further service. He’s picked up to be taken back to war by a man driving an oxcart. Phred asks the man what’s new. The man replies with a flood of Leninist clichés about how the vanguard of the proletariat is resisting the imperialist running dogs, yadda-yadda.

Thought balloon from Phred in the back of the cart: “I forgot we talked like that!”

I think I’ve got that strip in a book at home. I’ll try to dig it up.

Trigger warning: This may insult your intelligence

And it also might give you stressful flashbacks to some really maddening conversations you had during your college days.

So you are warned. This is not a safe space.

So much has been written about the newer sorts of ideological correctness on the campuses of American universities, mostly by haughty old white guys such as George Will and Bill Kristol, just harrumphing away.

51xdxNQIQ1L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Or for that matter by Kim R. Holmes (don’t worry! even though the name is “Kim,” it’s another oppressor white guy, refusing to check his privilege!), the author of The Closing of the Liberal Mind, which was was reviewed this morning in The Wall Street Journal.

So unless academia is your milieu, you’ve probably only heard such terms as “trigger warnings,” “safe space,” “cultural appropriation” and “microaggressions” within a disapproving context.

So it was kind of a nice idea to give the kids themselves a say in the matter, and over the weekend The Washington Post did that with a story headlined, “The new vocabulary of protest: What students mean by terms like ‘safe space’.”

Trouble is, while I feel for the student who says she doesn’t think the desire for a “safe space” or concern about microaggressions “makes me a stupid, naive child,” most of the quotes in the piece… how shall I put this?…

Basically, they read like the quotes a satirist would construct in creating fictional students who espouse the notions that The Closing of the Liberal Mind criticizes. A satirist who know nothing about these terms other than what he read by the critics.

If you’re likely to harrumph along with Will, this piece isn’t going to change your mind a bit.

These kids are sensitive. Just ask them; they’ll tell you. Like hothouse flowers. And they talk just like people who have a worldview that is entirely rooted in that sort of sensitivity.

So, stereotypes are not dispelled. Some samples:

Fadumo Osman: When I wear my traditional clothing I’m a foreigner and I’m criminalized for it, but when you wear it you make money off of it, and it’s cute….

Liam Baronofsky: One microaggression is like one paper cut, so it’s something small but it hurts the person at the core of their identity level. But it happens so often, you come home every day with like 15 paper cuts … and it really hurts….

But perhaps you’ll disagree. Go read the story, and let me know what you think.


9 out of 10 American Indians not offended by ‘Redskins’

So, in light of this:

New poll finds 9 in 10 Native Americans aren’t offended by Redskins name

Nine in 10 Native Americans say they are not offended by the Washington Redskins name, according to a new Washington Post poll that shows how few ordinary Indians have been persuaded by a national movement to change the football team’s moniker.Rhviuq9C

The survey of 504 people across every state and the District reveals that the minds of Native Americans have remained unchanged since a 2004 poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found the same result. Responses to The Post’s questions about the issue were broadly consistent regardless of age, income, education, political party or proximity to reservations.

Among the Native Americans reached over a five-month period ending in April, more than 7 in 10 said they did not feel the word “Redskin” was disrespectful to Indians. An even higher number — 8 in 10 — said they would not be offended if a non-native called them that name….

… what do we think now about the name of the Washington football team?

Here’s how Bryan responded to the news yesterday:

As for me personally — well, I’ve never seen any problem with it. The most likely motive for the name to me has seemed to be the one the team claims — as a respectful tribute to indigenous people. But since I’m not one of them, and I’ve been told it is supposedly offensive to people in that demographic (and also because I don’t much care what any football team calls itself), I’ve stayed out of it.

The Post has been going wild with the subject since releasing the poll results yesterday:

Will a new poll on the Redskins name alter the legal fight over the team’s federal trademarks?

Some in the news media are still offended by Redskins name, even if Indians aren’t

I’m dropping my protest of Washington’s football team name

So what do y’all think?

Russell Means as Chingachgook

Russell Means as Chingachgook

Oh, one last thing: Before anyone objects to my use of “Indian” in the headline… I don’t do so thoughtlessly. Not long ago, I read 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. The author chose to use “Indian” for the peoples whose direct ancestors came to this continent thousands of years ago. I found his reasoning for that persuasive.

Besides, Russell Means of the American Indian Movement preferred it. Who am I to argue with Chingachgook?

Finally, Twitter will only count the characters you actually TYPE

twitter header

This is exciting news for those of us who are addicted to Twitter — and it’s long overdue.

How many times have you carefully honed a Tweet to well under 140 characters, only to have it disqualified when you add the photo or link that inspired the post?

Did that feel unfair to you? It should have. It always has to me, even though, over the years, I’ve come to accept the stricture.

Mind you, it’s not that I object to the 140-character limit itself. Far from it. I embrace it. I think it provides the necessary tension to keep Tweets lean and mean — there’s just enough room to express an idea as long as you squeeze the fat out. It’s just right. It’s like the 90 feet between bases — an inch more or less and the balance between runners and defense wouldn’t be perfect.

But when you attach a picture or a link to your carefully-honed Tweet, suddenly you’re over the limit, through no fault of your own.

In any case, this injustice is finally at an end, or about to be:

Twitter Inc. is making a major shift in how it counts characters in Tweets, giving users more freedom to compose longer messages.

The social media company will soon stop counting photos and links as part of its 140-character limit for messages, according to a person familiar with the matter. The change could happen in the next two weeks, said the person who asked not to be named because the decision isn’t yet public. Links currently take up 23 characters, even after Twitter automatically shortens them. The company declined to comment….

“Declined to comment?” They should be shouting the good news from the rooftops!