When “Legends” Fail

March 1, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s a difference between liberals and conservatives, not just in their policy preferences or their views of Trump. They also differ in how they react to bad stuff in their own camp. Liberals are far more willing to recognize these inconvenient truths and to do something about their flawed leaders. Conservatives rally to the defense.

But you wouldn’t know that from reading Ross Douthat. It’s hard for conservatves like Douthat — thoughtful, principled, horrified by Trump — to say something good about Republicans these days. So instead, he goes after liberals. In his column yesterday, “The Twilight of the Anti-Trump Idols” Douthat is at pains to show folly and error of liberals for making heroes of Andrew Cuomo and the Lincoln project. Both of these parties turned out to have feet of foul-smelling clay.

. . .in the substitution of figures who ended up exposed as corrupt or just incompetent, we can see once again the importance of thinking about how we got Trump in the first place. Our society’s sickness may be particularly acute in Trump worship, but the affliction is more general. The stink of failure hangs over the liberal and cosmopolitan as well the populist and provincial,

See, Douthat says, liberals are just like conservatives. They share the same moral failings; they both suffer from the same “general affliction.”

Well, no. Of the “legends” Douthat mentions, only one is an actual Democrat — Cuomo. The other legends include the Lincoln Project, a group of anti-Trump Republicans; Mitt Romney, also a Republican and who occasionally opposes Trump; and “Europeans,” whose countries seemed to be doing better on controlling Covid-19.

Republicans in government and media have stood by Trump and his administration through all the lies, corruption, impropriety, cruelty, and incompetence. The strongest criticisms from official Republican organizations and Fox News have been aimed at those who dared criticize Trump. They are even hard pressed to find anything bad to say about the insurrectionists who invaded the capital.

Democrats and other liberals, by contrast, are hardly coming out in support of Gov. Cuomo. Nor have I heard them laud the Lincoln Project and Mitt Romney lately, though I don’t pay as close attention to these things as does Ross Douthat. As for the Europeans, have liberals been dismissing troubling numbers as “fake data.”? Do liberals circle the wagons when one of them has stumbled? Ask Al Franken.

I’m not sure how to account for this difference. Is it just Trump? Or can conservatives generally not risk losing support when they shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue or the Capitol building?  I’m skeptical about Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations” as causes of behavior rather than as after-the-fact justifications, as when conservatives use “loyalty” as an ideal to support their choices. But in this case maybe their stronger emphasis on loyalty leads them to defend their “legends” even those paragons have done things unbecoming a legend.

Singing Badly — Farce and Tragedy

March 1, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Maybe, but sometimes it’s the other way round.

The woman who opened the CPAC meeting in Orlando with her rendition of the National Anthem* chose to do it a capella. As you can hear, that’s probably because the true pitch of an instrument would only accentuate her notes that fall somewhere in between the keys of a piano. Besides, no accompanist could possibly keep up with her unpredictable key changes.

Did she have a precursor? She did indeed. “Darlene Edwards,” a parody of a nightclub singer, was a character created in the 1950s by Jo Stafford, a pop singer with classical training. Darlene performed overwrought versions well-known songs like “I Love Paris” and  “Autumn Leaves.” She would hit off-key notes and add or drop beats in a measure, all the while accompanied by “Jonathan Edwards,” her real-life husband Paul Weston, playing a florid style piano you might hear in cocktail bars of the time. Here is how they destroy “Take the A Train.”

Jonathan and Darlene Edwards were clearly farce. The humor is based on the proposition that “this is not us.” And in fact they were talented musicians, and you get a sense that what they’re doing to the pitch and meter is far more difficult than a straight performance.

The CPAC singer’s two minutes on the stage is probably not tragedy, at least not according to literary definitions. But it is sad. There is no distance between the performer and the role. She even seems to think that she’s doing a fine job. **

There’s an obvious parallel to be drawn between her and the most important performer at the CPAC, a man who apparenly really does believe that everything he has done has been perfect. His performance too appeared to be farce, and it was easy to laugh at. Eventually, it became clear that this was no laughing matter.

* I still have no idea who she is. My searches on Google and Twitter turned up nothing. A Facebook friend said that she was the daughter or niece of someone who gives a lot of money to CPAC.

** I’m not sure where Florence Foster Jenkins fits here. Accorfding to Wikipedia, “The question of whether ‘Lady Florence’ . . .was in on the joke, or honestly believed she had vocal talent, remains a matter of debate.”

Can We Talk? – Redux

February 19, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is talking a concession?

This exchange turned up in my Twitter feed this morning,

In case the screenshot is not legible, Robert Wright is responding to a paragraph from a WSJ story “U.S. Says It Would Meet for Nuclear Talks With Iran, Other Powers”  (here behind the WSJ paywall)

The plan was denounced by a key congressional Republican. “It is concerning the Biden administration is already making concessions in an apparent attempt to re-enter the flawed Iran deal,” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Wright disagrees:
The “plan” being denounced by this “key” Republican is literally just to sit down and talk to Iranian officials. He's opposed to talking, which he considers a “concession”.
But McCaul is not the only one who considers talking a concession. We all do, at least when the talkee is someone we strongly disagree with. But should we? The tweet took me back to this post from 2006, when this blog was a mere toddler not even three months old. It was called “Can We Talk?” It seems as relevant today as it did then.

            *                    *                    *                    *

The news today is that North Korea has agreed to sit down in talks about their nuclear bomb. North Korea leader Kim Jong-il (son of former leader Kim Il Sung) had previously demanded that the US talk with North Korea one-to-one, but US leader George Bush (son of former leader George Bush) had refused. Lil' Bush refused direct talks and insisted that four other countries had to be there.  Lil' Kim eventually caved, probably because China was threatening to cut off its oil.  

North Korea isn’t the only country we won’t talk to directly. Syria, Iran, maybe others. As with North Korea, if we’re going to communicate with them at all, we need other countries as intermediaries to relay the messages.

When I was a kid, I would sometimes have a dispute with one of my brothers, and we’d get so angry, we’d refuse to talk to each other. At the dinner table, I’d say something like, “Tell Skip that if  he doesn’t give back my racer, I’m not going tell him where I hid his airplane.” My mother would dutifully turn to her right and repeat the message, as though my brother hadn’t been right there to hear it. Then she’d do the same with his answer. You see similar scenes in sitcoms and movies. Maybe it happened in your family too.

In real life, at least in my house, it never lasted long. Everyone would see how stupid it was, how impossible to sustain, and usually we’d wind up dissolving in laughter at how ridiculous we were.

I imagine our ambassador turning to the Chinese representative and saying, “You tell North Korea that we aren’t going to give it any food unless they stop making bombs.” China turns to North Korea, just as my mother turned to my brother, and repeats the same message. North Korea says to China, “Yeah, well you tell the US . . . .” and so on. That’s pretty much what these countries have been doing anyway, though without actually sitting down in the same room.

When people insist on this “I’m not talking to him” charade, we call it childish and silly. When nations do it, we call it foreign policy.

(Full disclosure: I think I may be borrowing — i.e., stealing— this observation from something I heard Philip Slater say many years ago.)

We Didn’t Talk About Healing and Unity in the 60s. Why now?

January 22, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Now that the inauguration has finally settled the question of who is president, the calls for “unity” and “healing” will probably taper off. But for a while, you couldn’t turn on the TV without hearing those words. I wouldn’t have been surprised if, after the debacle also known as the Steelers-Browns playoff game, Mike Tomlin had said that the Steelers needed a time for healing.

In past times of national division, healing and unity were not part of the political discourse, They have become popular only recently, sort of like Liam and Olivia. In the 1960s, nobody named their kid Liam or Olivia. The 1960s was also, you may recall, a period of political conflict and division over civil rights and the war in Vietnam. Riots in the cities, assassinations of political leaders, killings and terrorism by White supremacists who were sometimes also cops and sheriffs. And yet, there wasn’t a lot of talk about healing and unity.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Unity actually declines in the sixties. Healing is just beginning its rise, and I suspect that much of the healing talk in those books was about personal rather than political healing. The crossover into politics does begin in the sixties, but the rise was nothing like what happened a quarter-century later.

Google nGrams, the source of the above graphs, counts words in books, so it lags behind the actual change in fashions. For something more up-to-the-minute I tried the Nexis-Uni tally of words in news publications. The graphs I could get quickly are not as nuanced, not as granular (speaking of fashionable words), but they show the same trends. The concern with healing a divided nation doesn’t set in until very late in the 20th century,

Why were we not talking about unity in the 1960s? My guess is that the difference between then and now is that although the nation was divided, it was not polarized. Certainly, the two major parties were not as polarized. The news media were also more concentrated, less divided. The most trusted man in America was a TV news anchor, something unimaginable today.

As for healing, its popularity is part of the more general diffusion of the language of psychotherapy into all areas of life, including politics. The therapy-based issues, as in “he has commitment issues,” has replaced the more secular problems. Decades ago, if I said, “Houston, we have an issue,” I would get a smile of recognition. Now, most people would think it was an accurate quote. We also talk about what someone “needs” to do rather than what they “should” do — the therapy language of personal needs replacing the morality language of right and wrong.* It’s a tribute to what might be called the triumph of the therapeutic that in a time when an actual disease has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and infected millions, our talk of healing is all about politics.


* I’ve said this before in somewhat greater detail in earlier posts (here
 Mad Men — Language Ahead of Its Time) and here (Needs — One More Time).