Category Archives: Words

Barton Swaim, using words as robots never would

Our fellow Columbian Barton Swaim, in semi-defense of Marco Rubio’s recent robotic debate performance, has written a nice piece — published in The Washington Post — about why politicians do sound like machines so often.

As usual, Barton himself uses words in a decidedly human manner. I mean that in a good way:

Coverage of Rubio’s howler has, to my mind, been vastly overdone (the episode did not reflect poorly on his judgment, his character or even his abilities), but it touches on a suspicion most of us have entertained about our politicians: that they use words mindlessly. Probably all of us who follow politics sometimes feel that the whole business is nothing but drivel and fakery — that politicians are emitting vacuous jargon, their key phrases repeated again and again with apparently no concern for accuracy or feasibility or coherence….

Barton Swaim

Barton Swaim

This is what gives political discourse that distinctive air of unreality. Its language isn’t intended to persuade as you and I would try to persuade each other; it’s intended to convey impressions and project images and so arouse the sympathies of voters. The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s bleak description of politics (in a 1939 essay titled “The Claims of Politics”) captures the essence of the political sphere and its madcap discourse: “A limitation of view, which appears so clear and practical, but which amounts to little more than a mental fog, is inseparable from political activity. A mind fixed and callous to all subtle distinctions, emotional and intellectual habits become bogus from repetition and lack of examination, unreal loyalties, delusive aims, false significances are what political action involves. . . . The spiritual callousness involved in political action belongs to its character, and follows from the nature of what can be achieved politically.”…

Ah, there ya go again (to use one of my least favorite political catchphrases), Barton, just saying mechanically what we’ve all heard Michael Oakeshott say so many times… :)

Seriously, go read his piece.

Which reminds me. I’ve still got Clare Morris’ copy of Barton’s book, and I need to get it back to her ASAP. Dang: I’m going to see her at a meeting this evening, and I left it at home again…

Kristof posts his Tweets on HIS blog, too. So there.

Admittedly, his are often more thoughtful and substantial, such as:

I had that very same thought when Cruz said that, but didn’t think to Tweet it. I don’t know why. Instead, I Tweeted this within one minute of what Kristof said:

Which is OK, but not as pointed, not as helpful, as what Kristof posted. Dang. And in retrospect, it was too soft on Cruz. What Rubio said a moment later, that not only had Cruz not helped the Navy; he was part of the problem, was way better. As were Kristof’s Tweets.

But even if they were better, he WAS using up a blog post to call attention to his Tweets — something I’ve been criticized for doing.

Of course, he wasn’t doing it instead of his thoughtful, well-crafted columns. It was in addition to. And yeah, I sometimes post Tweets as a substitute for extended commentary, when I don’t have time to write a real post. Under the theory that something is better than nothing.

But in my defense, I’ll say this: Kristof still gets paid to write those thoughtful columns. I do not. He doesn’t have to find time around his job to write them; they are his job.

And though I’m envious of that, I do appreciate his commentary on all levels, from Tweet to blog post to column.

Of course, there are people who won’t pay attention to what he says because he’s a liberal, and they think they are conservatives, and they’re thick enough to think that means they should not be exposed to his views. Such as the Trump supporter and member of Congress who wrote, “We could have written them for you before you started, my friend. The bias is simply that intense and unchangeable.” (At least he said “my friend.”)

Yep, Kristof is a pretty consistent liberal, which means I disagree with him frequently. But he’s the kind of liberal who posts such things as this:

… which means he is not only a talented observer, but an intellectually honest man who doesn’t reflexively dismiss what those on the “other side” have to contribute. And we should all listen to such people more.

ARRRGGGGHHH! Marco Rubio just lost ground with me

I’ve been struggling to figure out which candidate I’ll vote for next month, and Marco Rubio has been in the mix for consideration (since he meets the critical “not Trump or Cruz” criterion).

But he just lost a lot of ground with me.

Watch the above ad. It’s only 30 seconds.

Did you hear it? Did it grate on you as much as it did on me?

Yes, he really did say, “It’s time for a president…” (note that — A president, as in just one) “… who will put THEIR left hand on the Bible and THEIR right hand in the air, and keep THEIR promise to uphold the Constitution…”

ARRRGGGHHHH!!!!

I really don’t think I’ve ever heard it done so egregiously by any candidate for any office — three times in one sentence!

Yes, we’re a republic, but that’s no excuse for abusing the Queen’s English so…

Ed Madden’s post-flood poem

gervais street bridge

It was reported that Ed Madden, poet laureate of Columbia, read a poem at Mayor Steve Benjamin’s State of the City speech last night.

I asked Ed to share, and here it is:

At the Gervais Street Bridge Dinner

18 October 2015

And here we all are, this golden hour
on the river; on a bridge between

two cities, a bowl of blue sky
and gold light above us, the brown water

below us, behind us, beyond,
the current beneath all our conversations,

and later the lanterns all coming on

*

J. says there was this woman, Rachel,
not really affected, but needed to do

something, needed to help–there, in his
neighborhood, clipboard in hand, she made

sure that everyone got what they needed
as the floods receded down the streets,

and people assessed what was left

*

Someone makes a toast–to the first
responders walking by, a downed policeman,

to people making their way together, finding
their feet, together. A mayor says the rivers

don’t divide us, they bring us together,
and with each toast we make–all of us

gathered at the long tables, the river
threading our conversations–with each toast

a gust of wings above us, a flyover of geese
following the river home, and in the dark,

the rough voices still singing

Apparently, Trump and Palin have the same first language, and (surprise!) it’s not English

Had you listened to Donald Trump and wondered where you had heard that peculiar, gushing, bouncing-around, non-linear mode of expression before?

Yesterday, we were reminded where, when Sarah Palin endorsed him. Thanks to The Fix for providing the transcript of what it terms “Sarah Palin’s rambling, remarkable and at times hard to understand endorsement of Donald Trump.” Some excerpts:

“He is from the private sector, not a politician. Can I get a ‘Hallelujah!’ Where, in the private sector, you actually have to balance budgets in order to prioritize, to keep the main thing, the main thing, and he knows the main thing: a president is to keep us safe economically and militarily. He knows the main thing, and he knows how to lead the charge. So troops, hang in there, because help’s on the way because he, better than anyone, isn’t he known for being able to command, fire! Are you ready for a commander in chief, you ready for a commander in chief who will let our warriors do their job and go kick ISIS ass? Ready for someone who will secure our borders, to secure our jobs, and to secure our homes? Ready to make America great again, are you ready to stump for Trump? I’m here to support the next president of the United States, Donald Trump….

“Trump’s candidacy, it has exposed not just that tragic ramifications of that betrayal of the transformation of our country, but too, he has exposed the complicity on both sides of the aisle that has enabled it, okay? Well, Trump, what he’s been able to do, which is really ticking people off, which I’m glad about, he’s going rogue left and right, man, that’s why he’s doing so well. He’s been able to tear the veil off this idea of the system. The way that the system really works, and please hear me on this, I want you guys to understand more and more how the system, the establishment, works, and has gotten us into the troubles that we are in in America. The permanent political class has been doing the bidding of their campaign donor class, and that’s why you see that the borders are kept open. For them, for their cheap labor that they want to come in. That’s why they’ve been bloating budgets. It’s for crony capitalists to be able suck off of them. It’s why we see these lousy trade deals that gut our industry for special interests elsewhere. We need someone new, who has the power, and is in the position to bust up that establishment to make things great again. It’s part of the problem.

“His candidacy, which is a movement, it’s a force, it’s a strategy. It proves, as long as the politicos, they get to keep their titles, and their perks, and their media ratings, they don’t really care who wins elections. Believe me on this. And the proof of this? Look what’s happening today. Our own GOP machine, the establishment, they who would assemble the political landscape, they’re attacking their own front-runner. Now would the Left ever, would the DNC ever come after their front-runner and her supporters? No, because they don’t eat their own, they don’t self-destruct. But for the GOP establishment to be coming after Donald Trump’s supporters even, with accusations that are so false. They are so busted, the way that this thing works….

Oh, go read the whole thing. Just be careful you don’t get whiplash…

Word peeve of the day

What’s the news across the nation?
We have got the information
in a way we hope will amuse… you…
We just love to give you our views — La da tee da!
Ladies and Gents, Laugh-In looks at the news!

— “Laugh-In”

A new feature, which will appear when I feel like it.

This is a minor one, a subtle one. It doesn’t bother me as much as some others. Still, it just seems… odd.

I saw it in a cutline today in The State, but I don’t mean to pick on my friends there; I see it everywhere…

It said that “The Force Awakens” will be “opening Friday around the country.”

Around the country? Why not across the country? Or even, perhaps, throughout the country?

Say “around the country” and I picture a path that runs through Canada, the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf, Mexico and the Pacific.

“Around the world” makes sense. “Across the world” does not. But ours is a continental country, one that can be seen in its entirety from one side of the planet. One crosses it; one does not bypass it.

Yeah, I know — it’s not a big deal. And it can make sense, thought of a certain way. (You could argue that the film opens here and there all over the country, or around it, as opposed to following a single, straight line across it.) It’s just a peeve of mine, not because it’s necessarily wrong but because, most of the time, it fails to be the best word…

ACROSS

ACROSS

AROUND

AROUND

Obama acknowledges War on Terror

Obama speech

Most of the commentary I’ve seen since last night has emphasized that POTUS didn’t unveil anything new in his speech last night, that he mainly just tried to justify what he’s doing (or what he’s not doing, if you prefer), and that his real purpose was apparently to lecture us about tolerance.

Well, I heard something that sounded new to me. He said:

Our nation has been at war with terrorists since al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11. In the process, we’ve hardened our defenses — from airports to financial centers, to other critical infrastructure. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies have disrupted countless plots here and overseas, and worked around the clock to keep us safe. Our military and counterterrorism professionals have relentlessly pursued terrorist networks overseas — disrupting safe havens in several different countries, killing Osama bin Laden, and decimating al Qaeda’s leadership…

Did you catch it? Tell you what; let’s just zero right in on what I’m talking about:

Our nation has been at war with terrorists since al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11.

 

You catch that? We are “at war with terrorists.” Not “We’ve been prosecuting incidents of terror as discrete crimes,” or “I’ve been shutting down multiple wars started by my predecessor,” or “the so-called War on Terror.”

He said we are at war with terrorists. Maybe he’s said it multiple times before, but this time it jumped out at me.

Did it strike anyone else?

The NYT’s front-page editorial about guns

CVehHIBWcAERqKB

We knew that the New York Daily News was conducting a rather lurid campaign against guns on its tabloid front, but things have taken a significant new turn in a more respectable direction.

The Gray Lady, The New York Times itself, has published its first front-page editorial since 1920, headlined, “End the Gun Epidemic in America.”

This is a profound development, folks. The editors of the Times have resorted to a step that they did not see as necessitated by anything going on during the Great Recession, World War II, the turmoil of the 1960s, Watergate, 9/11 or anything else that happened during the past 95 years.

I suppose that’s because, while those other things were huge news events, none involved such difficult questions about what sort of nation we want to be as does this. More to the point, none of those things were likely to run into such adamant opposition as this initiative. If we’re really, truly, after all these years, about to have a serious national discussion about guns, it may be our toughest disagreement since slavery.

An excerpt from the editorial:

All decent people feel sorrow and righteous fury about the latest slaughter of innocents, in California. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are searching for motivations, including the vital question of how the murderers might have been connected to international terrorism. That is right and proper.

But motives do not matter to the dead in California, nor did they in Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut and far too many other places. The attention and anger of Americans should also be directed at the elected leaders whose job is to keep us safe but who place a higher premium on the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from the unfettered spread of ever more powerful firearms.

It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency. These are weapons of war, barely modified and deliberately marketed as tools of macho vigilantism and even insurrection. America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing, as they did on Thursday. They distract us with arguments about the word terrorism. Let’s be clear: These spree killings are all, in their own ways, acts of terrorism….

Bryan and I have already been having a discussion about this today, via Twitter. This post is intended to broaden the discussion:

See, that’s what I dislike about the “like” button

I’ve been enjoying Alexandra Petri’s stuff since I discovered her very recently.

But I must take issue with her piece last week, “A DISLIKE button, on Facebook? DISLIKE.” I don’t disagree with her on that. I don’t like the idea of a dislike button, either. And she argues her point ably:

A badly kept secret of human beings is that we never quite have the right words for delicate situations. We love “Like” for this reason — better than “Congratulations!” by a mile — but what is awkward in Facebook is not that there is no button for framing your compassionate response to loss. It is that grief and condolences are inherently unwieldy. Even the right button would not quite be the right button. The act of pressing a button in response to that news would feel wrong no matter how compassionate the word was. “Like” feels wrong. But I’m not sure “Dislike” would be much better.FBDislike

And any negative word presents the possibility of abuse.

Look, being considerate takes work. Communication takes work. Correspondence takes work. Finding words takes work.

I always find striking the rare Facebook status that has more Comments than Likes — usually, this comes when someone has suffered a loss. And then, in our fumbling way, we struggle for words. “I’m so sorry,” we say. “Sending thoughts,” we say. These responses are never very many words, but they feel infinitely difficult.

And they always have.

But here’s where I disagree: I have the same problem with the “like” button. It’s a cheap way out from doing the hard work of expressing what you really mean: Look, being considerate takes work. Communication takes work. Correspondence takes work. Finding words takes work.

I’ll admit that the harm done by hitting a “like” button is minimal compared to being misunderstood when you hit something just as simplistic with negative connotation (and I’ll confess I’ve made use of it, when I feel the tiny urge of social pressure to say something, and the like button is a sufficiently inadequate social gesture to meet that need). Seldom will anyone angrily confront you to demand, “What do you MEAN, ‘like’?” Although some people would. OK, I might. One can only take so much unfocused affirmation.

But I have to say, I “like” her suggestion for a “MEH” button…

After this, a headline writer would have nothing left to strive for

CO--R5tWwAAWinS

Bryan Caskey brought the above headline to my attention last night. I don’t know where he found it.

It prompts three thoughts:

  • The journalistic pedant in me protests that this is not a headline. It’s a lede and a good bit of the next graf. But hey, kudos to whoever had the sand to decide to hell with the rules; we’re gonna get all of this into the headline! But then, what choice did the editor have? What were they going to do, leave out the part about the guy she waved at being dressed as a Snickers bar?
  • As I Tweeted to Bryan in reply, “After that, the headline writer died happy….” I mean, seriously, what does he have to look forward to after that? He’s never going to top it.
  • If the copy editor did decide to cling to life — as we humans are wont to do — he should retire from his job at the tabloid, turn this headline into a country song and head to Nashville. Fame awaits.

Lincoln and Trump: Does it get more incongruous than that?

Lincoln

Someone shared with me this link to publicity about an event, and I was immediately struck by how grossly inappropriate it is to juxtapose a photograph of the Lincoln monument with the name “Donald Trump.” And yet there it is, imposed right across Honest Abe’s left shin.

Yeah, I get it. Someone seeking the Republican presidential nomination, and the first Republican nominee to be elected president. On a very literal, superficial level, I can see how that might make sense to somebody.

But, having watched (most of) the first episode of Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” again last night, I am particularly mindful at this moment of Lincoln’s stature as the most careful, thoughtful and profound speaker in our history. He was always careful to say exactly the right thing at the precise moment when it would have maximum effect in moving the nation toward emancipation and reconciliation. Not a word was out of place or ill-timed. He said exactly what needed to be said, for the good of the nation, at exactly the moment when it needed to be said.

He was always about appealing to “the better angels of our nature.” And he succeeded amazingly, at the moment in our history when we were most divided.

And then there’s Donald Trump, who is the opposite of all that. He’s the one person in public life that we can depend on to say precisely the wrong thing (if you define right and wrong according to Lincoln’s priorities of national unity and preservation) whenever he bloody well feels like it.

Putting them together this way is… jarring.

No, seriously, Dude — we would never shift you on this…

A Facebook friend of a Facebook friend, Curtis Rogers, spotted this on the Weather Channel’s page and grabbed it before they could take it down.

Looks like we’re in for some shifty weather. Millions of people are going to be in deep shift. Apparently, the shift is really going to roll downhill here in the Carolinas. And so forth:

shifty weather

I’ll believe you when you master the Queen’s English

cheesy

Got a spam email that I opened because the headline — “office uk” — made me think someone had sent me something fun about David Brent et al.

But what I got instead was a very junky, amateurish-looking Word document that began:

We write to inform you that we head a meeting last week regarding unclaimed funds of (500,000.00 GBP) here in our office, and your file was one of them that was opened by the Bank of England Director (Mark Carney) and fine out that your winning price have not yet deliver to you or transfer to your account due to your country Government strict rules and laws in the banking system, and also your low co-operation.

Note: Bank of England is given you second opportunity to claim this amount as your file has been open again by the Director (Mark Carney). You are to contact (Mr. Adam Payment Approval Manager) (Bank of England) with your personal details and quote him your Reference code… without any further delay….

Look, whoever you are: I’ll believe you’re with the Bank of England when you master the Queen’s English.

Harrumph.

Now watch — my snobbishness just cost me half a million quid. Which I could have used…

Why on Earth did Jeb Bush say ‘women’s health’ when that’s not what he meant?

What’s amazing about Jeb Bush getting into trouble over what he said about Planned Parenthood — which led to his having to issue a clarification — is that he essentially handed the cudgel to his critics and begged them to beat him with it.

Here’s what he said:

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who has been criticized recently by some conservatives for serving on the board of a charity that gave money to Planned Parenthood, called for the organization’s defunding during an interview Tuesday with a Southern Baptist leader.

“If you took dollar for dollar, though, I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues,” said Bush, to the cheers and applause from the audience of 13,000 Southern Baptists during his interview with Russell Moore at the denomination’s missions conference….

Obviously, what he meant to say was, I don’t think we need to send half a billion in tax dollars to the nation’s largest provider of abortions. Because, you know, that’s what we do. And that was the context of the statement.

But instead, he adopted the language of the people who use “women’s health” as a euphemism for abortion. This is something we all know and understand, whatever our positions on the issue. If we didn’t know that, we would have a terrible time following political debates. Anyone who thinks “women’s health,” in a political context, refers to fighting breast cancer or putting free clinics to promote overall health in poor neighborhoods is a person who’s going to be very confused about what is being discussed.

So why would Bush use the preferred euphemism of his opposition on this issue, thereby enabling them (with towering cynicism) to paint him as actually being opposed to, you know, women’s health? (Which is something that no one is against, which is why they say that instead of “abortion.”)

It’s inexplicable. Will he continue this trend? Will he start stating his position on abortion to be “anti-choice?” Will he express his objection to Planned Parenthood as being that it “prevents us from controlling women’s bodies?” Will he start wearing an actual sign on his back saying, “Kick Me, Hard?”

We all know that Donald Trump has said some stupid stuff lately. But on this, Jeb Bush voluntarily stuffed both feet in his mouth, completely unnecessarily.

It depends on what the meaning of ‘Christian’ is…

I'm using this photo from Scott Walker's website not because it particularly goes with this post, but to be helpful: If I were to write a post headlined, "Top Five GOP Presidential Candidates I'd Have Trouble Picking Out of a Police Lineup," he'd make the list.

I’m using this photo from Scott Walker’s website not because it particularly goes with this post, but to help y’all get used to seeing him: If I were to write a post headlined, “Top Five GOP Presidential Candidates I’d Have Trouble Picking Out of a Police Lineup,” he’d make the list. And it occurs to me that maybe some of y’all would have the same problem. Or maybe not. Other people watch more TV than I do…

Scott Walker is in hot water again — with Democrats, anyway, which probably isn’t keeping him up nights — for expressing something short of 100 percent certainty on whether POTUS is a Christian:

“You’re not going to get a different answer than I said before,” the Wisconsin governor said. “I don’t know. I presume he is. … But I’ve never asked him about that. As someone who is a believer myself, I don’t presume to know someone’s beliefs about whether they follow Christ or not unless I’ve actually talked with them.”…

Walker wrapped up his answer by saying, “He’s said he is, and I take him at his word.”…

OK, yeah, I get it. Obama is a special case. Expressing anything short of total acceptance of his avowed Christianity hints at birtherism. Dog whistles and all that.

But… suppose for a moment that Walker said that about any one of the other 7 billion and something people on the planet. In those cases, I would say his caution was entirely defensible.

This interests me for reasons totally unrelated to Barack Obama and the paranoid fantasies about him to which some fringe folk subscribe. It has to do with the proper use of the word “Christian.”

I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable myself answering the question, “Are you a Christian?” Not because of the denotative meaning of the word — one who professes belief in Jesus Christ and his teachings — but because of the connotations that attach to it.

Once, it was used among English speakers to mean something like “normal,” or civilized. For instance, the historical novelist Patrick O’Brian would put it in the mouths of his Regency Period characters when they were talking about the normal, proper way of doing a thing. The physician Stephen Maturin, despite years at sea, remains such a landsman that he can’t climb the rigging the way seamen do and must ascend to the top through the “lubber’s hole.” So his friend Jack Aubrey might speak of his inability to get up there “like a Christian.” Aubrey, who is just as incompetent on land as his friend is at sea, is a terrible gardener, so his rose bushes do not resemble “anything planted by a Christian for his pleasure.”

That sense has gone out of favor. Most people would find it confusing today, and like as not take offense at it.

Nevertheless, many English speakers today seem to use the word as a sort of honorific, as something describing a person who has arrived spiritually. This is most common among those who are in the habit of describing Christians as people who are “saved,” as opposed to people who are merely striving to follow the teachings of the carpenter/rabbi from Nazareth.

If I was sure everyone understood it in that striving sense — as describing someone who believes, and wants to live up to the standards set by the teachings of Jesus, and tries to do so — then I’d be perfectly comfortable telling one and all that I am a Christian. Or at least, attempting to be. (After all, I must ask myself always, am I even a Christian in the sense of striving? Am I really trying hard enough to qualify?)

But I fear they may take it the other way, as some sort of self-congratulation on my part — which to me would be contradictory to the whole belief system. In other words, if I said “yes” without mixed feelings, would I be disqualifying myself?

Anyway, if Scott Walker or anyone else says he can’t know whether I am truly a Christian, I’ll congratulate him on his humility in admitting he doesn’t know something he lacks the power to truly know, since it’s a point upon which I can even confuse myself.

But then, I’m not Barack Obama.

Is ‘populist’ sometimes a euphemism for ‘stupid?’

I sort of felt like Gerald Seib, the Wall Street Journal‘s Washington bureau chief, was tiptoeing around something in this political analysis, which seems to go nowhere really, reaching no coherent conclusion (it read less like something a senior political writer is inspired to write than a reply dragged from a schoolboy by the question, “Compare and contrast these two politicians…”):

Could the nascent 2016 campaign turn into one of those elections that shakes up the system?

The question arises most obviously because of the summer sensation of Donald Trump, billionaire populist with a long history of giving to Democrats who has somehow tapped into a deep vein of working-class anger to become a current (though temporary) leader in the Republican presidential field. There are enough mind-bending contradictions in that sentence alone to at least raise the question of whether something broader is going on. The thought is only enhanced by the fact that the single hottest political draw right now is Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 73-year-old socialist who favors a $15-an-hour minimum wage and the breakup of big banks….

In fact, those are just two forces at work suggesting the system is straining to break loose from some of its traditional moorings. The combination of a wide-open race, populist strains at the base of both parties and big demographic changes all open the doors to destabilizing forces.

Polls suggest Mr. Trump’s resonance is greatest with disillusioned lower-income voters, illustrating that Republicans are trying to come to terms with a party that has grown more blue-collar, working-class and antiestablishment as it has grown….

Seems to me like he’s straining with that “populist” label in an effort to come up with a word that describes the appeal of both Trump and Sanders. With Sanders, I can see it, but with Trump? Really? A populist billionaire who revels into  his own excess? How can a guy who’s best-known catchphrase is “You’re fired!” be any kind of a populist?

Seib describes the GOP as “a party that has grown more blue-collar, working-class and antiestablishment,” but is that really who is applauding Trump right now? There’s a word that seems to be missing, and it describes a long-standing tradition in American politics: anti-intellectual.

I wouldn’t apply that label to the GOP in general. But it’s definitely the impulse that Trump is tapping into.

From the election of flat-Earther Andrew Jackson over the supremely qualified John Quincy Adams to the present day, there has been a perverse streak in the electorate that causes significant numbers to go for whoever is dumbing down politics the most.

I’m not saying the voters themselves are stupid (that would be anathema in American politics, right?), I’m just saying that sometimes, some voters have a sort of fit that causes them to convulsively embrace whoever is making the biggest jackass of himself on the political stage.

And at the moment, that is unquestionably Trump.

And yeah, there is a disturbing simplicity to Bernie Sanders’ vision of how to build a more perfect union. But to the extent that the two share a trait, is “populist” really the word for it?

The majority isn’t always wrong, but it isn’t always right, either

With Scott Walker in town today, I took a moment to read a letter that some New Hampshire Democrats wrote to him upon his visit to that state. An excerpt:

We wanted to welcome you to the First in the Nation Primary. You are a little late to the game, so we decided to help you out with some information about New Hampshire.

Last night, you said that raising the minimum wage was a “lame idea.” Lame idea? Really? Well, it’s an idea that 76% of Granite Staters support

Which got me to thinking about Henrik Ibsen.

That letter — a good example of the kind of letters that partisans send, not meant to communicate with the purported recipient privately, but to taunt him publicly (or in this case, to tell the 76 percent what an awful person Scott Walker is) — got me to thinking of some of my favorite Ibsen quotes back when I was 17, from “An Enemy of the People:”

“The majority is never right. Never, I tell you! That’s one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against. Who are the people that make up the biggest proportion of the population — the intelligent ones or the fools?”…

“Oh, yes — you can shout me down, I know! But you cannot answer me. The majority has
might on its side–unfortunately; but right it has not.”…

“What sort of truths are they that the majority usually supports? They are truths that are of such advanced age that they are beginning to break up. And if a truth is as old as that, it is also in a fair way to become a lie, gentlemen.”…

I fear that I’m giving you a rather ugly picture of myself when I was 17. Well, I had my share of youthful arrogance and alienation, a bit of a Raskolnikov complex, which is common enough. Some of us outgrow it. Others among us end up like Edward Snowden, convinced that we know better than everyone else, especially established institutions.

I outgrew it, thank God. Which is to say that I’ve come to disagree with almost everything Ibsen seemed to be on about.

All that remains of it, with me, is a belief that the majority is not always right. It can be right, and I think it probably is considerably more often than the proverbial stopped clock. I think there’s really something to the notion of “the wisdom of crowds.” Or as Stephen Maturin said in The Mauritius Command, “whoever heard of the long-matured judgment of a village being wrong?”

Yes, and no. It is very often right, but it can be wrong, I fear.

In any case, it seems unreliable as an indicator of whether an increase in the minimum wage is a good idea, or a “lame” one.

I’ve heard the arguments for and against, and I just don’t know. If anything, I may lean toward the against — the assertions that a mandatory increase in wages could lead to fewer jobs, particularly for the poor, seems to make some sense.

But I don’t know, regardless of what 76 percent of Granite Staters may say…

Take it easy, y’all — Atticus is still Atticus

Atticus

Over the weekend, there was a national (and international) cry of pain as folks heard that, in the long-lost Harper Lee novel Go Set A Watchman, Atticus Finch turned out to be a cranky old segregationist.

Don’t worry. Atticus is still Atticus.

I’m an editor, and as an editor — although not a book editor, I’ll allow — I understand why a book, or a column, or a news story, doesn’t get published: Because it wasn’t good enough.

Here’s what happened: A wannabe novelist submitted a manuscript, and an editor took a look at it, and said, essentially, This is not the novel you want to publish. The novel you want to publish is in these flashback passages. Dig into those, make those into your novel, and then you’ll have something.

He saw the truth in those passages, when Scout was just a girl. So, the editor did what I did when a piece just needed way more change than I had time to give it in the editing process — he kicked it back, gave her the chance to redeem herself as a writer, to write the great book that the editor saw in her.

No one has said this, but I strongly suspect that the editor had had his fill of novels by young folks who had come to New York, donned a mantle of self-conscious sophistication, gone home to visit their small-town homes, and then thought they were being terribly original by coming back to Manhattan and writing about how small, provincial, narrow and stultifying their home towns were. When really, they were being painfully trite.

He wanted Nelle to dig into the true story that she had in her, the one before all that, when she and Scout were unspoiled by the world, and yes, her Daddy was a hero.

And of course, being the editor, he was right. What he directed her to write was perhaps the best-loved American novel, one that was true, that spoke to people, that hit them where they lived, that said something about the American experience and its central conflict that needed to be said, and needed to be said in precisely that voice. (Interesting, isn’t it, that the two great, profound American novels that examine the narrative of race in this country — this and Huck Finn — are both told from the perspective of a child…)

I plan to read Go Set A Watchman, and I expect I’ll enjoy parts of it, here and there — it will be nice to hear that voice again. But I’m not going to get upset thinking something happened to Atticus. I know the real Atticus. This isn’t some sequel revealing some new, shocking side to him; this is just an imperfect, throwaway, first draft of him. And I know how little first drafts may be worth, before an editor gets ahold of them.

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Asking South Carolina style, bless her heart

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I love this.

My friend Justin Young, whom I see most mornings at the club at breakfast — he’s the one guy who shows up even later than I do — showed me something pretty awesome this morning.

As you know if you’ve been to the State House grounds during all this, the moveon.org placards that say, “#TAKE DOWN THE FLAG” are pretty ubiquitous.

And yesterday, apparently, they had boxes of them that said, “571,000+ DEMAND TAKE DOWN THE FLAG.” I guess they thought the others weren’t insistent enough.

Well, I’m not going to get into my thoughts about moveon.org’s involvement in all this, but you know that I’m really only interested in what South Carolinians think about it, particularly those 124 in the House who are deciding as we speak.

Which is why I love the one humble, hand-drawn sign held by the lady in the straw hat that expresses the same thing in more of a South Carolina style:

PLEASE TAKE DOWN THE FLAG.

Please. Bless her heart. She does us all credit.

I’ll bet if the governor saw her, she’d be proud of her (“Be kinder than necessary.”) . I know I am.

The first 350 words I wrote on the Confederate flag

black and white flags

OK, it’s technically only 349, which is amazingly terse, considering the thousands — probably hundreds of thousands — of words I would eventually write on the subject.

I make a reference to this piece in my column in Wednesday’s editions of The State. I thought I’d share the whole thing with you.

It was February 1994. I had only been on The State‘s editorial board for six weeks. One morning, I read in our paper where my friend and colleague Lee Bandy had asked then-Gov. Carroll Campbell about the Confederate flag that then flew over the State House, and saw how dismissive the governor had been of the issue.

Which I found to be outrageous.

So I quickly ripped out this very short editorial — what we called a backup, as opposed to a lede — and got it into the paper ASAP. (Actually, The State has the first backup that I’ve seen in awhile on the page with my column.)

I hadn’t thought all that carefully about the flag up to that point. The fact that it should come down seemed obvious to me. But in reading this you can see I had not yet developed the themes that would be central to my writing about the flag later. You’ll see that I emphasize South Carolina’s image to outsiders, which has not been an important theme to me since then. I mainly did that because it was believed that Campbell harbored presidential or vice-presidential ambitions, so I seized on that to at least give him reason to think harder about the issue.

Here is the editorial:

CAMPBELL SHOULD SHOW VISION ON FLAG ISSUE
State, The (Columbia, SC) – Wednesday, February 16, 1994

THE ever-careful Carroll Campbell is taking an interesting gamble by not taking a stand on flying the Confederate battle flag atop the State House.

As Governor Campbell cautiously nurtures ambitions for the national stage, this issue could prove to be his Rubicon. If he crosses it, he risks alienating a chunk of South Carolina voters. But crossing it could be a way of gaining the national credibility necessary to his ambitions.

Increasingly, the flag is a human relations irritant even as we confine our gaze inward. And it is a problem for Southerners each time we reach out to the world. This happened with Georgia as it looked toward the Olympics, and Alabama as it worked to lure Mercedes-Benz.

As Mr. Campbell gazes outward, he should see that he ought to issue a call to bring the flag down, and he must do it now. He will have no standing to address it next year, when he will be asked why he avoided the issue as governor.

To say, as Mr. Campbell does, that the flag has to do with little more than “temporal emotions of the moment” is absurd. These emotions arise in turn from a failure to resolve the central crisis of our history. That failure arises from many causes, but one of them is a lack of leadership. The rest of the nation can be expected to have little patience with a man who seeks to lead it into the 21st century, but can’t make a gesture to lay a 19th century conflict to rest.

We’re not saying it would be easy. We’re saying that the effort would be worthwhile, particularly if the flag is placed in an appropriate historical display. The Governor has gained a considerable store of political capital in the past seven years; this would be a good way to invest some of it.

By having the guts to deal with this problem constructively, he will have shown himself worthy of the national stage. And he will have done an enduring service to his home state.

Anyway, that was the start of my 21 years of writing on the subject. And soon, maybe, maybe I’ll be done.