The Paragraph Project (1)

For the past 17 years or so, I have worried a lot about writing good sentences. To some extent, my college training reinforced that obsession. Not so much in my writing classes themselves — which were mainly fiction and long-form journalism workshops, and taught me to think rigorously about big-picture structural issues like characterization and the shape of a narrative, although there was also some focus on sentence- and even word-level decisions. But in college English classes, when you’re reading Fitzgerald or Shakespeare, what you’re blinded by, what signals “genius writing,” are the sparkling sentences.  Continue reading The Paragraph Project (1)

Nonsense Presidents Say

“One of the most frustrating aspects of this fight against terrorism is that it has created a whole security apparatus around us that causes a huge inconvenience for all of us,” Obama said.

— “Obama calls airport pat-downs frustrating but necessary,” USA Today

This sentence is nonsensical. The “fight against terrorism” has not “created” any security apparatus; the United States government has done that. This convenient phrasing allows Obama to elide over the fact that airport security, like any other government activity, is the result of so many choices among alternatives, made by actual people. Instead, he presents the “whole security apparatus” as though it is being inexorably generated as a second-order effect by some first-order set of decisions called the “fight against terrorism,” and, by implication, suggests that only by abandoning that “fight” could we abandon these particular security measures. This is just a more circumlocutory way of saying, “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” Continue reading Nonsense Presidents Say

Security Theater

The current hubbub over the TSA’s latest inane, invasive “security theater” measures reminds me of nothing so much as high school. In the wake of Columbine and at the height of the late ’90s “school safety” obsession, my public high school installed two metal detectors in the gym and began requiring all 1,400 of us students to bottleneck through them every morning on the way to class. It was never entirely clear if the metal detectors actually worked, or were being used properly — they seemed to beep at random as students walked through, with no apparent follow-up. The most visible effects of this policy were to make lots of students late for class, and to ensure the daily existence, at least for an hour or so, of a crowd outside the building. Anyone who really wanted to, say, shoot or blow up a lot of students could easily have done so now that we were all conveniently gathered in one place every morning. Of course, what really kept us safe all those years was not these silly “security measures” but the basic fact that the vast majority of people aren’t trying to commit mass murder the vast majority of the time.  Continue reading Security Theater

The Welfare State

David Frum defends the welfare state:

We should remember why the immediate post-Depression generations created so many social-welfare programs. They were not motivated only — or even primarily — by “compassion.” They were motivated as well by the desire for stability.

Social Security, unemployment insurance and other benefits were designed as anti-Depression defenses, “automatic stabilizers” as economists called them. When people lost their jobs, their incomes did not drop by 100 percent, but by 30 percent or 40 percent: they could continue to pay rent, buy food and sustain society’s overall level of demand for goods and services.

Students of political rhetoric, note how the architect of “compassionate conservatism” has now decided (realized?) that the better rhetorical strategy for legitimating a policy in the eyes of American conservatives is to try to distance it from “compassion.” It’s just about economic stability, you see.


Along with the able help of his legion of Civil War buff commenters, Ta-Nehisi Coates takes down Walter Williams:

Williams is not debating with James McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom. He does not confront historian Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation. He is not interested in Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning. Instead Williams offers up—unchallenged, uncorroborated and wholly accepted—primary testimony from 150 years ago, along with two works of history both more than seventy-five years old.

In this instance, it must be said that Williams is practicing history in the manner of a phrenologist practicing brain surgery—with similarly ghastly results. In raising primary sources to the level of indisputable fact, Williams employs a methodology which does not merely argue for the existence of black Confederate legions, but for UFOs, orcs, the Dover Demon, elves and magic.

Here we have a perfect encapsulation of reasons for pessimism and reasons for optimism about the future of the historical profession. On the one hand, Walter Williams is an economics professor (granted that he’s essentially on the payroll of the John M. Olin Foundation), but apparently can’t be bothered to read a work or two of history before expatiating on the subject. On the other hand, plenty of people outside the academy apparently do read scholarly history — check out TNC’s comments section. I’m tempted, here, to link to David Frum’s silly review of a new history of the 1970s and ’80s, in which Frum essentially asked, “Who needs books like this anymore now that we’ve got the Internet?” Somehow it seems relevant.

I Eff, You Eff, She Effs

I was tickled by this line from a Roger Scruton essay:

I too am tempted to eff the ineffable.

But I wondered: Is “eff” really a verb? (Is “scrute” or “whelm”?) To the online OED! (A proxy subscription to which is surely among the greatest little perquisites of university affiliation.) Alas, it seems that “to eff” is indeed listed as a verb in that definitive lexicon, but not with quite the meaning Scruton assigned to it:

Continue reading I Eff, You Eff, She Effs

The “Big Bang Theory” Theory

A theory is, my dictionary says, a supposition intended to explain something. In the Wall Street Journal today, Virginia Postrel offers a supposition intended to explain this:

… “The Big Bang Theory,” the CBS sitcom featuring Sheldon [a theoretical physicist] and his three almost-as-elite geeky friends, is among the most popular shows on TV. Kicking off the network’s now-dominant Thursday-night lineup, it attracts about 15 million viewers a week. Now in its fourth season, it’s the top-rated Thursday-night program among adults 18 to 49 years old and those 25 to 54.

Continue reading The “Big Bang Theory” Theory


What to make of the midterm elections? In the name of restraining government power, what we are instructed to call “the Tea Party movement” unseated the one member of the Senate who voted to restrain government power. Feingold has been compared to LaFollette, and one is indeed tempted to cite H. L. Mencken, who said it best in 1924: “LaFollette will be defeated tomorrow, as he deserves to be defeated in a land of goose-steppers and rubber stamps.” Feingold didn’t dismiss Tea Partiers as “goose-steppers and rubber stamps.” He acknowledged the legitimacy of their concerns and the possibility of common ground. I’ll say it again, anyway: “LaFollette will be defeated tomorrow, as he deserves to be defeated in a land of goose-steppers and rubber stamps.”