Punctuation & Civilization

As Kenneth Clark said, “Manners are small morals.” I’d say the same about punctuation.

The part of the mind that remembers the rules for capitalization after a semicolon or whether to use “who” or “whom” is also the part of the mind that strives to think clearly about the matter in front of it. Punctuation guides our grammar and through our grammar it guides our consciousness.

Mary Norris, The New Yorker’s “comma Queen,” says as much in her latest piece. If you think of yourself as a member of The Resistance against the immorality and incompetence of those in power at the moment, she says that a good place to start is with a clean, beautiful statement of the truth. To speak truth to power, in other words, it is essential to first know how to speak.

What is The Long-Term Price of Tolerating Corruption?

Matthew Whittaker, Trump’s acting attorney general, made a hefty six-figure sum from a non-profit supposedly devoted to public oversight of government, but which spent most of its efforts making partisan attacks on Democrats. He sat on the board of a company that the Federal Trade Commission has labelled a scam. He has also made statements that he doesn’t believe in the full independence of the judiciary branch, something which has been settled in America since the 18th Century, and which we all learn in school to be an unshakable foundation of our democracy. Because of his partisanship and questionable character, past attorneys general have gone so far as to sign a letter asking Mr. Whittaker not to politicize his office.

Is this a person we want running the United States Dept. of Justice? Mr. Trump, who has made no secret of his use of public office for personal gain, seems to think so. It could be tempting to see Mr. Whittaker as just another scandal of the last few years, to be despised but also tossed on the heap with all the others. But that’s an error. To let this pass would be to cross a line and let public confidence in yet another brand of government erode.

What’s the long-term cost when corruption is assumed? We need only look to Brazil, which has recently elected a far right-wing candidate to the presidency who has made public statements in support of dictatorship, rape jokes about his colleagues in government, and who has credibly threatened to put his political opponents in jail. He doesn’t believe in gay rights, and openly supports torture.

Yet it’s not because they agree with him that Brazilians elected Bolsonaro. It was a wave of mistrust in an openly corrupt government that propelled him to the presidency. Most Brazilians don’t even think he’s qualified, but they fear and mistrust the old ruling party so much that they are willing to tolerate his rhetoric. As conditions in Brazil have worsened, with the murder rate hitting 157 homicides per day, and the economy collapsing, trust in government has collapsed in turn. Bolsonaro won trust by making speeches in praise of the only institutions that Brazilians still trust, the army and the church.

We’re not there yet in the U.S. But every time we look the other way at contempt shown for the rule of law or the use of public trust for personal gain, we take a little step in that direction. The public institutions that Americans trust are not so different from the ones Brazilians trust most. We trust our news media more, at least for now.

It won’t be confidence in a demagogue that ends democracy in the U.S., but a long simmering mistrust in all our public institutions, kept going by the constant addition of new scandals.

Midterm Results: Victory for the Democrats (Not with a Bang, But a Whimper)

Compared to the far more substantial opposition party victories in 2006, 2010, and 2014, last night was a disappointment, even an occasion for worry.

The attacks on democratic norms and institutions we’ve witnessed in the last two years, as well as the upheavals of foreign and trade policy by the Trump administration, should’ve triggered a recapture of both houses by the Democrats. Instead, we got a moderate swing toward the opposition party that could’ve happened in the midterm elections of any first-term presidency–albeit one that will insure the kind of basic check on Presidential power that the constitution was designed to enshrine.

As Bill Kristol has pointed out on twitter, the Democrats lack the discipline to stay on message—any message. And as David Brooks wisely pointed out, demography means that it is the Democrats who will be leading the country into a majority-minority future. If they don’t come up with an inspiring, unifying message, it will be left to the fear mongers to forge the emotional core of our national life. The sooner the Democrats forge their own coherent national narrative, the better their short-term electoral fortunes, and the better the health of the nation. It will be an uphill battle against social media, which is predisposed to negativity, but it is a battle they have to get serious about fighting.

Most worrying for democracy is the toleration in Georgia of massive voter disenfranchisement by a secretary of state who abused his office to win the governorship. Especially because it is politicians like Stacey Abrams, known for pragmatic bipartisan governance, whose “purple state” leadership will provide just the kind of unifying narrative our country needs to know who it will be in the 21st Century.

What did you think of the outcome of the elections?


Are you a sexual, racial, or religious minority? Vote to keep the protections in place that recognize your right to safety and dignity.

Are you a conservative who feels that we’ve lost our minds as a society? Vote to keep a sane connection to decency, decorum, and the ideals of the past.

Are you a progressive who believes that we could be on the cusp of a more equal, happier society, free of the irrational restrictions of the past? Vote to take another step toward that future.

I don’t care what your ideology is, just vote. Just try to vote *for* what you believe, not just *against* what your own side tells you to fear.

And, at the risk of being shrill, I’ll say it’s worth remembering the number of people here and abroad who have endured or are enduring torture, harassment, and the threat of violence and even death, all because they assert that they have the right to decide how they are governed.

If you’re an American alive right now, you’re still enjoying the freedom, safety, and abundance that a society built on classically liberal principles provides. Things are looking pretty bad right now, but we still haven’t lost everything.

So go vote to make sure we don’t!


Jamal Khasshoggi’s Fiancé and Why a Free Press Matters

Steven Pinker’s most recent book, Enlightenment Now, reminds us that the modern world we live in is a combination of material progress, secularism, and a devotion to the truth. If we’re fortunate enough to live in safety and freedom from want, it’s because some philsophers and political dissidents in Scotland, England, France, and America in the 1700s decided to think in a new way, and because those inspired by them were willing to fight for their beliefs.

There is a direct line from Mary Wollstonecraft, Adam Smith, David Hume, Voltaire, and Rousseau to the economic systems that put breakfast on our tables every morning and keep those of us, like me, who are either sexual, racial, or religious minorities, safe from harm. You don’t get safety, material progress, secularism, and a devotion to the truth piecemeal. They are a package deal.

Which is why I felt anger and dismay at reading the editorial in the Washington Post over the weekend, penned by the fiancé of the murdered journalist Jamal Khasoggi. She rightly says that the U.S. should be leading the charge to find and bring his killers to light. Khashoggi matters because he commanded moral authority by telling the truth. Before round about 1750, speaking the truth of one’s direct experience and beliefs wasn’t really a force that had real power in society. And it seems that round about 2020, it won’t be again. A free press was enshrined by the enlightenment thinkers who founded America because access to information, freedom of expression, and a search for the truth had to be available to every citizen in a democracy. The founding fathers even put the equivalent of billions of dollars into subsidizing the circulation of newspapers–all newspapers–not just ones that had specific ideologies. And two and a half centuries later, a free press is still an essential part of the enlightenment project. To let it come to harm, either in America or abroad, is to undermine what America stands for.

I’ve written here that Trump’s response is different only in style from that of previous U.S. administrations. Even if that may be so, the murder of a symbol of all the West stands for demands a braver response than Trump, a self-styled defender of Western Civilization, has so far given. At this moment, style may matter more than substance.

I don’t have a good answer for how to handle this situation. We are entwined with the Saudis. We prop up their monarchy, they provide us with energy and key alliances, specifically against Iran. They are also a hotbed of terrorism and the country most responsible for 9/11. Yet some bold and better response to Khashoggi’s murder must be found. In a democracy, moral choices by our rulers matter, because they either strengthen the principles of honesty and public trust which our government depends on as surely as it depends on money and might, or they weaken them.

What we need now is resolute moral leadership and a new way forward. I don’t think we’re going to get either.

Don’t Get Trapped in the Dark America Depicted in Halloween 2018

Halloween 2018, which I watched through my fingers on Tuesday, is getting some praise from the right-wing media for depicting just the kind of world conservative voters feel they live in: where danger lurks everywhere, evil is absolute, the news media have an effete mindset that threatens to soften us to death, and where safety comes from a hard-as-nails attitude that makes skill with a gun or a knife more important than feelings.

All you need to know about the story: Laurie Strode, the nurturing babysitter from the original 1978 Halloween, deploys an arsenal of weaponry to defend her family from escaped serial killer Michael Meyers, back for revenge after she defeated him long ago.

The atmosphere of fear and the rootin’ tootin’ frontier attitude of the heroines make for a pleasant enough couple of hours. But Haddonfield, the little town where both Halloweens are set, is–thank God–not a place any of us actually have to live. In the real world, being a “good guy with a gun” isn’t as morally clear or as emotionally satisfying as the movies make it seem. And raising our children and governing our nation in an atmosphere of terror is corrosive to both mental health and democracy.

So let’s all enjoy a few scares in this season of horror films and ghost stories. But when we vote, let’s make sure we’re living in reality, not fantasy.

Is Roe v. Wade our Dred Scott?

Earlier this week I wondered if there were a central axis to the cold Civil War we have in America. In the years leading up to the actual Civil War, all public debate revolved around the question of slavery. You couldn’t fully participate in the world beyond your door without calling yourself either abolitionist or pro-slavery.

When the Supreme Court, lead by the pro-slavery Chief Justice Roger B. Tawney, ruled in Dred Scott in 1857 that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” the country was torn in half. Instead of settling the question of slavery, as Tawney intended, we moved closer to war. In response, Republicans in Congress added another justice to tip the Supreme Court in favor of abolition.

In an editorial for the Post (which was summarized in The Week), Michael Barone posits that Roe v. Wade is the hidden fault line in our current politics. Barone’s editorial isn’t about the rightness or wrongness of abortion, but about the way that the issue has shaped electoral politics for 30 years, putting both Republicans and Democrats on ideological islands, unable to find common ground on anything, even when their beliefs or expediency in serving the public good might dictate it.

Is the abortion debate the source of the vast reserves of emotional energy that have been heaped on the Kavanaugh Affair by both sides?

Even if you believe that Kavanaugh’s offenses or the shadow of doubt cast on him render him unfit for the Supreme Court, or if you believe that his confirmation is a deliberate punishment of feminists by reactionaries, it is still worth considering how the abortion debate has invisibly fueled this controversy. It is like the sleeping dragon buried beneath the castle of contemporary politics. We don’t talk about it. We don’t dig it up. But we can feel its heat.

What do you think is the central axis of our politics?

P.S. – I almost didn’t post this, for fear of being misunderstood. Let me be clear: I am *not* calling for a repeal of Roe v. Wade. I am *not making a moral correlation between the wrongness of Dred Scott and the rightness or wrongness of Roe v. Wade. I am making a historical analogy that I hope will help us solve something that puzzles me about our politics, i.e. the source of the hatred and the co-existing unrealities that I see fueling it daily.