In my romantic moods I liken myself, as conductor of this column, to a lighthouse keeper on a distant isle. Picture him, if you will: scanning the waves, tending his lamp, doing his duty so that others, duly warned of danger, may safely reach their port. Alternatively, I see myself as a prison guard standing in his tower, wary and farsighted, watching to make sure that the criminals don’t run loose.
In short, this is a lonely job, and it can make you a little strange.
But to return . . . people with solitary occupations sometimes amuse their empty hours by keeping diaries or notes of the things they observe. And that’s what I do. Some of my notes find their way into the column right away. Others build up, and worry me. This is a good time to purge a few of them.
Any order will do, so I’ll start with:
1. Hillary Clinton, April 13, speaking at a conference hosted by Al Sharpton, and addressing the problem of white people, of which she is one: “We need to recognize our privilege [she said], and practice humility.” A good thought. And if either she or her host wants to start practicing humility, none of us will stand in the way. Start now! By the way, don’t you love seeing pictures of politicians that show them as they really look? If you do, you’ll enjoy this link to Mrs. Clinton’s remarks.
Put this down as one more instance of a common phenomenon: news writers simply miss the glaring and immediate contradictions that news readers see at once.
2. Headline, Washington Post, March 22: “Infamous ex-Toronto mayor Rob Ford dies after cancer fight.” Ah, wasn’t it Franklin Roosevelt who said, “Rob Ford — a mayor that will live in infamy”? Well, the Post can take its pick: either recognize the distinction (not a small one) between “infamous” and “famous,” and substitute the latter for the former in headlines like that; or consciously employ its headlines to editorialize on the news. But it is not an option to keep writing headlines without a head.
3. Alas, another report about Hillary Clinton, this one from Reuters, April 2: “Clinton, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic Party nomination in the Nov. 8 presidential election, has apologized for using a private email server for official business while in office from 2009 to 2013 and said she did nothing wrong.” I believe this wording comes fairly close to the truth — she did say she made a “mistake,” which I guess is something close to making an apology, and she does continue to talk and act as if she did nothing wrong, often chortling about the very idea that she might have done so. But shouldn’t the report at least signal the disjunction between apologizing and saying you’re right? Put this down as one more instance of a common phenomenon: news writers simply miss the glaring and immediate contradictions that news readers see at once.
4. It occurs to me that the great unsolved mystery of the presidential campaign is this: what would Donald Trump sound like if he ever prepared a speech? He is the first major presidential candidate who ever started to run for the office just because he thought it would be fun, and his grammar, vocabulary, and syntax (what there is of it — you try to diagram his sentences) reflect that fact. They continue to reflect it, now that he’s taking the campaign seriously. They haven’t changed. I wonder, if he ever wrote out a speech and connected subjects with verbs and adjectives with nouns, and got it all down on paper in the way that normal people do when they have something important to say, would we discover that he actually is in favor of free trade and would welcome open borders? Or would it be the same mishmash of notions and promises that it is right now?
5. You’ve probably seen those Ancestry.com ads in which personable men and women talk about not having known the families or ethnic groups from which they descend, until they paid for the services of Ancestry.com. That’s fine: who am I to object to historical research? But one of the recent ads seemed strange to me, and the more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed. In this one, a young woman says that because of what she learned through Ancestry.com, “I absolutely want to know more about my Native American heritage.”
I wonder, if Trump ever wrote out a speech and connected subjects with verbs and adjectives with nouns, and got it all down on paper in the way that normal people do when they have something important to say, what would we discover?
Of course, one curious feature of that sentence is its substitution of the trendy “Native American” for the old-fashioned “American Indian.” I don’t particularly care which expression people decide to use, but I would feel better if they recognized that the expressions are both inaccurate. (That’s an ordinary characteristic of ethnic monikers: people who don’t like something I wrote often claim that I wrote it because I’m a “WASP,” although I have only a tiny fraction of Anglo-Saxon “blood”; I’m just white, that’s all.) American Indians aren’t Indians in the sense that they once came from the (East) Indies, as Columbus thought; but if you believe there’s something authentic about naming yourself after Amerigo Vespucci, you ought to be more reflective. Besides, anyone born in this country is a native American.
But where do these broad claims of “heritage” come from? If you’re brought up in a community of Germans or Jamaicans or, yes, American Indians, or if you know even one family member who can transmit that community’s cultural heritage, why yes, you yourself have a heritage that you may perhaps enjoy. In a nation that seems to be filling rapidly with genealogists, however, I have met precisely two persons who have recovered some significant knowledge of culture from their genealogical research. The rest of them are just filing in blanks on family trees, and paying as little attention to Great-Grandmother Emeline’s life, historical circumstances, or distinctive culture as stamp collectors pay to the political careers of Paraguayan statesmen.
Yet the ad doesn’t merely suggest that would-be genealogists will learn about their “heritage”; it asserts that they already have it: it’s their heritage; they possess it. Now, how can you have something like that, without even knowing it? You can’t — unless culture is, somehow, in your “blood.” Which it isn’t.
6. If you’re seeking wisdom about cultural matters, you might seek it from — guess who? — Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure exactly when she said this, but it was recently, because it appeared in remarks on current events that were replayed by Fox News on March 26. I was unlucky enough to be walking past the television when I heard her being asked a question about what makes people want to become Islamic terrorists. She opined: “People who feel marginalized, left out, left behind, are going to want to join something.”
The best teachers — have you noticed? — are the kind who inspire their students to ask questions. As an eager student of Mrs. Clinton, I have some questions I’d like to ask about that statement of hers. Here are a handful:
A. Do you mean we can fight Islamic terrorism by giving money to the Boy Scouts?
B. Why, in your opinion, don’t these people who feel so marginalized join something that will place them a little closer to the center? Why do they insist on joining something that wants to destroy both the center and the margins?
C. Or are you saying that clubs, churches, mosques, temples, auto racing associations, kennel clubs, the Loyal Order of Moose, the NAACP, and the Friends of the Library are filled with people whose need to join something would otherwise have made them terrorists? This quest for belonging — is that why people wander into your own campaign?
D. You’re quite a joiner yourself. You’ve been a member of countless organizations. Is that because you felt marginalized and left behind? If you lose the presidency, will you turn terrorist?
E. The terrorists in San Bernardino — a civil servant, making a decent income; a wife who was given a baby shower by his coworkers not long before the couple tried to murder them all: in what sense were they left out?
G. But why confuse ourselves with specifics? Let’s be more general: Do some people get left behind because they don’t move fast enough? Do some people get marginalized by their own bad qualities? Is it possible that some people become religious terrorists because they are disgusting, hateful people who have finally discovered a convenient excuse to act out their hateful feelings? Do you think that by making comments such as the one we are discussing, you may be making that excuse more convenient?
There’s no point in going on to H, I, or J. As the man says in Citizen Kane, “You can keep on asking questions if you want to” — for all the good it will do.
7. Bernard (“Bernie”) Sanders at the Democratic Presidential Town Hall, March 7: “Every other country on earth, as you may know, has a national healthcare program of one kind or another.” What shall we say to a statement like that — delivered, as always with Sanders, in a tone of total certainty and extreme indignation? Let me try a couple of responses.
The first is admittedly off the subject. It is: haven’t we had enough of faux folksiness? If the gathering at which Sanders pontificated (but where doesn’t he pontificate?) was a “town hall” meeting, so is an animal act in Vegas. Town meetings are places where real business is transacted; they aren’t arenas set aside for political hacks to exhibit their grotesqueries.
No one had suspected Sanders of a sense of humor, and he really doesn’t have one, because it took him about two months to work this saying up, but it’s genuinely funny.
My second, and more relevant, response is simply: how can anyone listen to this stuff with a straight face — and without asking questions about what, if anything, it means? The United States has not one but two national healthcare programs. They’re called Medicare and Obamacare. In fact, Sanders went on to mention Medicare, in an odd manner, given his earlier statement: “We have a program called Medicare which needs improvement.” Whether this means we’re doing worse than Nigeria, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Surinam, or Bhutan, I do not know, but I strongly suspect that “national healthcare” in those places may not be so well established, if it exists at all. Probably “one kind or another” is meant, in a lying way, to cover all such possible states of the international healthcare biz; but if so, why doesn’t it sufficiently cover our own national healthcare? Why does it justify everyone except ourselves?
Sanders went on to claim, essentially, that insurance causes accidents:
If you are a physician, my guess is you spend half your life arguing with the insurance companies, is that right?
And, you got [sic] people out there filling out forms. Every person in the room has private insurance, filling out forms. The reason that we are so much more expensive than other countries is that we have huge bureaucracy in the healthcare system, and we pay much, much too much for prescription drugs.
Again, you can keep on asking questions (such as, “By the way, what’s your source for all this?”) — but nobody does.
The reason nobody does may be that Sanders is so highly esteemed for his “sincerity,” “authenticity,” and “honesty” as to be protected from normal inquiries about even his most ridiculous claims. And he maintains this esteem because the journalists who surround him simply let him prattle on, without asking factual questions. It’s a perfect circle. But believe it or not, a person is actually not honest, sincere, or authentic if he keeps saying things that aren’t true, just because he wants to say them — because, although he wants enormous power over other people’s lives, he isn’t responsible enough to make ordinary attempts to find the truth.
8. Since I, however, have some sense of responsibility, I will admit that among the thousands of idiocies that gush forth daily from the lips of the leading presidential candidates, one can, if one inspects the torrent with exhaustless care, discover an occasional remark that is not idiotic. I have one comment marked “entertaining” in my record of current sayings, and by God, it’s by Senator Sanders. No one had suspected him of a sense of humor, and he really doesn’t have one, because it took him about two months to work this saying up, but it’s genuinely funny. It’s about (who else?) Hillary Clinton, and it’s the centerpiece of Sanders’ perpetual demand for her to publish the text of that extraordinarily well-paid talk she gave to “Wall Street bankers.” Sanders’ crack is: “That musta been some speech, if it was worth $225,000 dollars.” This isn’t hilarious, but it’s funny, much funnier than you’d expect from a man who spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union; and at this point in the Campaign from Gehenna, I’ll take any kind of humor I can get.