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.
Angela Merkel has served formal notice that she will lead the German wandering away from the American alliance.
Seven years after the end of the Second World War, on the 10th of March 1952, the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the newly established Federal Republic of Germany received an astounding note from the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union offered to withdraw the troops that then occupied eastern Germany and to end its rule over the occupied zone. Germany would be reunited under a constitution that allowed the country freedom to choose its own social system. Germany would even be allowed to rebuild its military, and all Germans except those convicted of war crimes would regain their political rights. In return, the Allied troops in western Germany would also be withdrawn—and reunited Germany would be forbidden to join the new NATO alliance.
She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.
The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.
The condition has long been considered untreatable. Experts can spot it in a child as young as 3 or 4. But a new clinical approach offers hope.
This is a good day, Samantha tells me: 10 on a scale of 10. We’re sitting in a conference room at the San Marcos Treatment Center, just south of Austin, Texas, a space that has witnessed countless difficult conversations between troubled children, their worried parents, and clinical therapists. But today promises unalloyed joy. Samantha’s mother is visiting from Idaho, as she does every six weeks, which means lunch off campus and an excursion to Target. The girl needs supplies: new jeans, yoga pants, nail polish.
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At 11, Samantha is just over 5 feet tall and has wavy black hair and a steady gaze. She flashes a smile when I ask about her favorite subject (history), and grimaces when I ask about her least favorite (math). She seems poised and cheerful, a normal preteen. But when we steer into uncomfortable territory—the events that led her to this juvenile-treatment facility nearly 2,000 miles from her family—Samantha hesitates and looks down at her hands. “I wanted the whole world to myself,” she says. “So I made a whole entire book about how to hurt people.”
Some firm handshakes, forced smiles, and awkward sword dances. In short, nothing.
Let’s hear it for the Rainbow Tour It’s been an incredible success
We weren’t quite sure, we had a few doubts
Will Evita win through?
But the answer is yes
There you are, I told you so
Makes no difference where she goes
The whole world over just the same
Just listen to them call her name
And who would underestimate the actress now?
—Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Evita
Like Donald Trump, Juan and Eva Perón were populists. They seem to have shared Trump’s understanding of the purposes of philanthropy (for more, read up about the Eva Perón Foundation) and the importance of fiscal probity. And like Eva in 1947, Donald Trump has just completed a glitzy overseas trip.
It had ample farcical episodes: the Saudi king, the dictator of Egypt, and the president of the United States placing their hands on a glowing orb that evoked for some a lampoon of Lord of the Rings. The secretary of state assuring us that no one overseas was paying attention to Trump’s domestic troubles (palpably, indeed laughably, untrue) even as his spokesman excluded the American press from a briefing attended by the considerably more docile reporters of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The national-security adviser insisting, “The entire trip is about human rights, about all civilized people coming together to fight the hatred”—an odd remark to make in a country that lops the hands off thieves and the heads off apostates. The commerce secretary, in one of his more witlessly thuggish remarks, observing complacently about urban Riyadh: “There was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there.” And then there were the video clips: Melania flicking away her husband’s groping hand and the Leader of the Free World giving the prime minister of little Montenegro a good hard shove.
Preston Brooks, Greg Gianforte, and the American tradition of disguising cowardice as bravery
You wouldn’t say that Preston Brooks sucker-punched Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber in 1856—but only because he used a cane. Brooks, a South Carolina congressman, began bludgeoning Sumner, the anti-slavery Massachusetts senator, while Sumner wasn’t looking, and beat him unconscious as Sumner was still bent under his desk trying to stand up.
Brooks and his supporters in the South saw the incident as an act of great valor, as the historian Manisha Sinha writes. Brooks bragged that “for the first five or six licks he offered to make fight but I plied him so rapidly that he did not touch me. Towards the last he bellowed like a calf.” The pro-slavery Richmond Enquirer wrote that it considered the act “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequence.” Other “southern defenders of Brooks,” Sinha writes, praised Brooks for his “manly spirit” and mocked Sumner for his “unmanly submission.” It would have been manlier for the unarmed Sumner not to have been ambushed.
The permissiveness of Republican leaders who acquiesce to violence, collusion, and corruption is encouraging more of the same.
In the annals of the Trump era, May 25, 2017, will deserve a special mark. Four remarkable things happened on Thursday, each of which marks a way that this presidency is changing the nation.
The first remarkable thing was President Trump’s speech at the NATO summit in Brussels. Many European governments had hoped—which is a polite way to say that they had suggested and expected—that Trump would reaffirm the American commitment to defend NATO members if attacked. This is the point of the whole enterprise after all! Here’s how it was done by President Obama at the NATO summit after the Russian invasion of Crimea:
First and foremost, we have reaffirmed the central mission of the Alliance. Article 5 enshrines our solemn duty to each other—“an armed attack against one … shall be considered an attack against them all.” This is a binding, treaty obligation. It is non-negotiable. And here in Wales, we’ve left absolutely no doubt—we will defend every Ally.
It’s known as a modern-day hub of progressivism, but its past is one of exclusion.
PORTLAND, Ore.— Victor Pierce has worked on the assembly line of a Daimler Trucks North America plant here since 1994. But he says that in recent years he’s experienced things that seem straight out of another time. White co-workers have challenged him to fights, mounted “hangman’s nooses” around the factory, referred to him as “boy” on a daily basis, sabotaged his work station by hiding his tools, carved swastikas in the bathroom, and written the word “nigger” on walls in the factory, according to allegations filed in a complaint to the Multnomah County Circuit Court in February of 2015.
Pierce is one of six African Americans working in the Portland plant whom the lawyer Mark Morrell is representing in a series of lawsuits against Daimler Trucks North America. The cases have been combined and a trial is scheduled for January of 2017.
The increasingly illiberal European country offers shelter to a growing number of international nationalists.
In February 2017, at the state of the nation address, Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary and the leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant Fidesz party, offered his vision for the country in the coming year. “We shall let in true refugees: Germans, Dutch, French, and Italians, terrified politicians and journalists who here in Hungary want to find the Europe they have lost in their homelands,” he proclaimed.
In reality, Orbán’s “refugees” have been moving to Hungary, and Budapest in particular, for years. A small clique of Identitarians, or aggrieved nationalists from Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and elsewhere, all motivated by their disdain for their home countries’ commitment to liberal values, have found an ideological match in his Hungary, where two extreme far-right parties, the governing Fidesz and Jobbik, the largest opposition party, make up most of the National Assembly. Jobbik is the first European political party to champion a border wall. Its members frequently express open anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiments, and prioritize the preservation of “Hungary for the Hungarians.”
For the past several months, a group of Christian writers have been debating the value and meaning of dressing modestly--a conversation that is relevant even to people who aren't part of religious communities.
Actress, designer, and former White Power Ranger Jessica Rey has a mission: to get as many women as possible in one-piece swimsuits. Owner of the "vintage-inspired swimsuit line" Rey Swimwear, Rey appeared in L.A. this April at the annual Q Conference, a gathering for Christians to discuss "ideas for the common good." In her nine-minute talk, "The Evolution of the Swimsuit," she traced the trajectory from the days when women traveled down to the beach in a "bathing machine," to today, when 36 square inches of Lycra barely incite a blink.
Rey believes that the now-ubiquitous bikini hurts women. She cited a 2009 study conducted by Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske that asked 21 undergraduate heterosexual men to look at photos of fully clothed women, then look at photos of bikini-clad women. Fiske noted that the bikini images activated the men's brain regions associated with tools, or "things you manipulate with your hands." Whilesomecommenters noted that the images in the Princeton study were headless (thus already depersonalized), to Rey the study proved that the effects of the bikini are dire in a hypersexualized culture: "Wearing a bikini...shut[s] down a man's ability to see her as a person." In order to preserve their personhood, Rey said, women should dress more modestly. "Modesty isn't about covering up our bodies because they're bad. Modesty isn't about hiding ourselves. It's about revealing our dignity." First step? Buy a Rey Swimwear--tagline, "who says it has to be itsy-bitsy?"--swimsuit.
A Washington Post report suggests the president's son-in-law and adviser sought to give Moscow information he wanted to conceal from America's own intelligence agencies.
Why did Jared Kushner seemingly trust Russian officials more than he trusted the U.S. government?
Friday evening, The Washington Post broke the story that, according to an intercepted report by the Russian ambassador in Washington to his superiors in Moscow, Kushner sought to use secure communications facilities at the Russian Embassy to correspond directly with Russian officials. The Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, reported that the proposal was made in December, after Trump won the election but before he had taken office. The conversations reportedly involved Michael Flynn, the former Trump national-security adviser who was fired after it was revealed that he lied to administration officials about the content of his conversations with Russian officials.