In every field, there are artists who rise above the rest of us. I look up and marvel at the beauty of the stars. My Uncle Ned, who's a Harvard/University of Michigan-trained PhD astronomer, sees and marvels at astrophysical processes that go far beyond my surface appreciation of a pretty night sky. The same is true of art, music, cooking, botany, architecture, and almost every human endeavor.
William Safire, who died Sunday at the age of 79, was an artist in the field of language. And his voice will be missed.
Artists and experts don't just know more about their subjects; they actually see them differently. Which has its pros and cons. Painters don't just see objects, they see a mix of light and shadow. Ever since becoming a pilot, I no longer see clouds as just pretty puffy things in the sky. I see high Cirrus, which means I may need to depart earlier than planned, because a change in the weather is coming. A breezy day isn't just nice. It means turbulence in the pass.
The ability to appreciate far more layers of detail means that far more details can also irritate. My brother David can appreciate many more fine points of a symphony than I can. But he'll also be bothered by the fact that the horns in the second movement came in just a tad too late. And once you understand the technical elements of a subject, it can be hard to look at it without that magnifying lens. There's a line near the end of the movie Men in Black where the Tommy Lee Jones character, about to have his memories of aliens erased, says that it's going to be nice to be able to look up and see just a beautiful starry sky again.
As they delve further into the details of their art, artists also run the risk of getting lost in their own personal forest of specifics and language, leaving the rest of us too far behind to follow. Which is fine, as long as you don't care about communicating any of your ideas or the wonder of your discoveries to the rest of the world. I interviewed a NASA scientist once who insisted that to say the satellite he'd worked on had a near-equatorial orbit was untrue. It was, he said, a low-to-mid-inclination orbit. I explained that the book was for a lay person audience, and most people didn't inherently know what a low-to-mid-inclination orbit was, unless we explained it further. "Well, any intelligent person knows!" he exclaimed.
The same possibility exists with language. There are purists who, I suspect, are writing more for their own enjoyment than the comprehension of the audience. They're in love with multi-syllabic words, even if only six people in the audience know or can envision what those words mean. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that, any more than with a jazz artist who cares more about reaching the pinnacle of intense self-expression than commercial success. In fact, I think it's important to have some purists out there, if only to remind the rest of us that the world contains magnificent mountains beyond the familiar, local hills we see and use everyday. It's just important to be clear about the goal, and be okay with the consequences of your choices.
William Safire was fascinated almost to the point of obsession with the details of words, leading to many arcane debates with his readers over seeming minutiae of nuanced word origin, usage or meaning. Live by the sword, die by the sword. And there were undoubtedly times when his own love of little-known words kept readers away from the ideas he was expressing. But he also asked and explored thought-provoking questions--including, inthis 2008 blog entry, whether perhaps Pliny the Younger was the world's first real blogger. And in a world where the instant-word-factory-assembly-line crunch of blogging and email, and the word-annihilation of texting and Twitter (LOL if u no wht i mean), the presence of those who still love, explore, and use the full depths and twists of the English Language--or any language--becomes even more important if the art is not to die out.
I'm not a purist of language; I'm as concerned with getting the point across as I am with the beauty of the words I put together to do it. But I am still a practitioner of the art; a member of the symphony, if not its artiste solo perfectionist. And so I truly appreciate those whose passion skill and knowledge act as a beacon for the rest of us, pulling us further along than we otherwise would have gone.
Ammon Shea, a dedicated word-lover, wrote a book last year about the year he spent reading the Oxford English Dictionary, cover to cover. (Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages). His obsession for the task drove those around him nuts, and I can't say as I have the passion required to follow in his footsteps. But I loved his book, and all the discoveries he allowed me to share. To think! There's actually a word for a fear of dinner parties! Who knew?
I also don't have the stamina of a William Manchester, whose biography of Winston Churchill stretched over three volumes--the last of which had to be completed by someone else, because Manchester suffered a series of strokes that left him, in his last years, unable to write. In commenting on the tragedy of a man whose life's work was the loving caress of words having lost his ability to find them, essayist Roger Rosenblatt recited one of Manchester's passages about Churchill's funeral:
"When his flag-draped coffin moved slowly across the old capital, drawn by naval ratings, and bare-headed Londoners stood trembling in the cold, they mourned, not only him and all he had meant, but all they had been and no longer were, and would never be again."
Manchester, Rosenblatt noted, most likely "had only the scantiest idea where that sentence would end when he began it. Only when he caught up with it could he know. But then, there was another sentence running ahead of him. There was always another sentence. And now there isn't." I still look at Manchester's words ... and Rosenblatt's framing of them ... and feel as if I've been blessed with a combination of master performances so beautiful and perfect that if it they'd been played out in a concert hall, I would have shouted aloud, "Bravo!"
Communication doesn't have to be taught. We learn it instinctively as small children. But the art of language; exploring words and crafting them together with rhythm, poetry, and meaning, is a learned and practiced skill that few ever master as well as Manchester, Keats, Shakespeare, or Safire. Like master chefs, musicians, athletes or scientists, they show us what's possible, and add a layer of nuanced beauty to a sometimes overly practical world.
I didn't always agree with Safire's detailed focus or opinions. And sometimes his immersion in his art may have stood in the way of getting his point across to a broader audience. But maybe, the point he really wanted to get across was simply how much richness there was in this language we use everyday, if only we'd take the time to explore and savor the forest with a little more attention and depth. And on that point, his message was inimitably, powerfully, and exceptionally clear.
With Donald Trump its presumptive nominee after his win in the Indiana primary, the GOP will never be the same.
NEW YORK—Where were you the night Donald Trump killed the Republican Party as we knew it? Trump was right where he belonged: in the gilt-draped skyscraper with his name on it, Trump Tower in Manhattan, basking in the glory of his final, definitive victory.
“I have to tell you, I’ve competed all my life,” Trump said, his golden face somber, his gravity-defying pouf of hair seeming to hover above his brow. “All my life I’ve been in different competitions—in sports, or in business, or now, for 10 months, in politics. I have met some of the most incredible competitors that I’ve ever competed against right here in the Republican Party.”
The combined might of the Republican Party’s best and brightest—16 of them at the outset—proved, in the end, helpless against Trump’s unorthodox, muscular appeal to the party’s voting base. With his sweeping, 16-point victory in Tuesday’s Indiana primary, and the surrender of his major remaining rival, Ted Cruz, Trump was pronounced the presumptive nominee by the chair of the Republican National Committee. The primary was over—but for the GOP, the reckoning was only beginning.
The odds of defeating the billionaire depend in part on whether Americans who oppose him do what’s effective—or what feels emotionally satisfying.
Tens of millions of Americans want to deny Donald Trump the presidency. How best to do it? Many who oppose the billionaire will be tempted to echo Bret Stephens: “If by now you don’t find Donald Trump appalling,” the Wall Street Journal columnist told the Republican frontrunner’s supporters, “you’re appalling.”
Some will be tempted to respond like anti-Trump protesters in Costa Mesa, California. Violent elements in that crowd threw rocks at a passing pickup truck, smashed the window of a police cruiser, and bloodied at least one Trump supporter. Others in the crowd waved Mexican flags. “I knew this was going to happen,” a 19-year-old told the L.A. Times. “It was going to be a riot. He deserves what he gets.”
A person’s age plays a role in when they think United States was at its peak—and Baby Boomers have a particularly dim view of the present.
Of all the themes powering Donald Trump's rhetoric, nostalgia is the strongest. Make America great again. We used to win. We're going to bring jobs back.
Republicans love a good bout of rocking-chair reminiscing. Others have noted the party's preoccupation with the word "restore," citing, among other things, Marco Rubio's newest book (American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone), Mitt Romney's super PAC ("Restoring Our Future"), and Glenn Beck's 2010 rally on the National Mall ("Restoring Honor"). When a party's central tenets include a strict interpretation of the Constitution and a commitment to traditional values, it can't avoid an existential yearning for days gone by. Trump has merely put a more populist spin on a longstanding impulse.
A new partnership between Google and Chrysler is a reminder that self-driving cars won’t go anywhere until the public trusts they’re safe.
Google is more than doubling its fleet of self-driving vehicles this year. But instead of adding more of its own cute bubble-shaped vehicles, or another batch of Audis, Lexus SUVs, or Toyotas like those it currently uses to test its technology, Google is working with Chrysler to build 100 driverless minivans.
In one respect, this is straight out of the so-not-flashy-it’s-actually-flashy Silicon Valley playbook. (See also: Black turtlenecks.) But it’s actually a brilliant move on the part of Google. (And Chrysler, for that matter, but that’s another story.)
For one thing, self-driving cars, when they become available for purchase, are likely to crop up first in certain kinds of environments, like small cities or large corporate campuses. A vehicle that seats eight will be attractive for businesses and institutions that might want to snap up mini-fleets of driverless cars for ridesharing.
Rampant drug use in Austin, Indiana—coupled with unemployment and poor living conditions—brought on a public-health crisis that some are calling a “syndemic.”
Jessica and Darren McIntosh were too busy to see me when I arrived at their house one Sunday morning. When I returned later, I learned what they’d been busy with: arguing with a family member, also an addict, about a single pill of prescription painkiller she’d lost, and injecting meth to get by in its absence. Jessica, 30, and Darren, 24, were children when they started using drugs. Darren smoked his first joint when he was 12 and quickly moved on to snorting pills. “By the time I was 13, I was a full-blown pill addict, and I have been ever since,” he said. By age 14, he’d quit school. When I asked where his caregivers were when he started using drugs, he laughed. “They’re the ones that was giving them to me,” he alleged. “They’re pill addicts, too.”
Does the presumptive Republican nominee see African Americans and Hispanics as part of the American “we”?
Celebrating his big win in Indiana—and his elevation to presumptive nominee of the Republican Party—Tuesday night, Donald Trump spoke at Trump Tower in New York City, where he delivered a promise to heal the deep fractures in his party.
“We want to bring unity to the Republican Party,” he said. “We have to bring unity. It's so much easier if we have it.”
That will be a tall order. But as a general-election candidate, Trump will need to win over more than just Republicans. In his inimitable way, he pledged to bring together the rest of the nation as well.
“We're going to bring back our jobs, and we're going to save our jobs, and people are going to have great jobs again, and this country, which is very, very divided in so many different ways, is going to become one beautiful loving country, and we're going to love each other, we're going to cherish each other and take care of each other, and we're going to have great economic development and we're not going to let other countries take it away from us, because that's what's been happening for far too many years and we're not going to do it anymore,” he said. (That’s a single sentence, if you’re keeping track at home.)
A new study suggests teens who vow to be sexually abstinent until marriage—and then break that vow—are more likely to wind up pregnant than those who never took the pledge to begin with.
Teen birth and pregnancy rates have been in a free fall, and there are a few commonly held explanations why. One is that more teens are using the morning-after pill and long-acting reversible contraceptives, or LARCs. The economy might have played a role, since the decline in teen births accelerated during the the recession. Finally, only 44 percent of unmarried teen girls now say they’ve had sex, down from 51 percent in 1988.
Teens are having less sex, and that’s good news for pregnancy-and STD-prevention. But paradoxically, while it’s good for teens not to have sex, new research suggests it might be bad for them to promise not to.
As of 2002, about one in eight teens, or 12 percent, pledged to be sexually abstinent until marriage. Some studies have found that taking virginity pledges does indeed lead teens to delay sex and have fewer overall sex partners. But since just 3 percent of Americans wait until marriage to have sex, the majority of these “pledge takers” become “pledge breakers,” as Anthony Paik, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, explains in his new study, which was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
Having friends is good for you, science confirms, but not all friendships are unequivocally good. They can be imbalanced, codependent, destructive, exclusionary. “Frenemies” was a buzzword there for a while (and apparently a Disney Channel Original Movie in 2012), but even friends who truly care about each other can hurt each other.
And still, “without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods,” as Aristotle wrote. For Aristotle, true friendship was a virtue, and a flawless force for good in the world. In his new book On Friendship, Alexander Nehamas, a professor in the humanities at Princeton University, questions that idea. He thinks that friendship is not about morality at all, and that we value it not because it is always good, but because it is beautiful.
Historical precedents augur against Donald Trump—but perhaps the old rules no longer apply.
Historical context is a great asset. But is history always an accurate guide? Does past performance always give us the best predictor of future outcomes?
This election season provides a fascinating frame to see if the polarization in politics, from Washington to the states to the public, is no different than what we have seen in the past; if the angry populism evident especially on the right but also to some degree on the left, is no different from the populism that has emerged following every economic setback; if the surge for an insurgent, non-establishment candidate that has always petered out well before the primary process is over will follow the same arc; if the Republican Party will once again flirt with outside-the-box candidates before settling on an establishment figure; if the fact that every major-party convention since 1952 has been over before a ballot is cast will hold true again. Or, perhaps, if this time might be different.