One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation - George F. Will (2008)

Chapter 4. SENSIBILITIES AND SENSITIVITIES

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Narcissism as News

Time magazine asked a large number of people to name the Person of the Year. They were in a populist mood and named the largest possible number of Persons of the Year: Everybody.

Of course. The most capacious modern entitlement is not to Social Security but to self-esteem. So Time’s cover features a mirrorlike panel. The reader—but why bother to read the magazine when merely gazing at its cover gives immediate and intense gratification?—can gaze at the reflection of his or her favorite person. Narcissism is news? Evidently.

To the person looking at his reflection, Time’s cover announces, congratulations: “You control the Information Age.” By “control,” Time means only that everyone is created equal—equally entitled to create content for the World Wide Web, which is controlled by neither law nor taste.

Richard Stengel, Time’s managing editor, says, “Thomas Paine was in effect the first blogger” and “Ben Franklin was essentially loading his persona into the MySpace of the eighteenth century, ‘Poor Richard’s Almanack.’” Not exactly.

Franklin’s extraordinary persona informed what he wrote but was not the subject of what he wrote. Paine was perhaps history’s most consequential pamphleteer. There are expected to be 100 million bloggers worldwide by the middle of 2007, which is why none will be like Franklin or Paine. Both were geniuses; genius is scarce. Both had a revolutionary civic purpose, which they accomplished by amazing exertions. Most bloggers have the private purpose of expressing themselves, for their own satisfaction. There is nothing wrong with that, but nothing demanding or especially admirable, either. They do it successfully because there is nothing singular about it, and each is the judge of his or her own success.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 76 percent of bloggers say one reason they blog is to document their personal experiences and share them with others. And 37 percent—soon, 37 million—say the primary topic of their blog is “my life and experiences.” George III would have preferred dealing with 100 million bloggers rather than one Paine.

Stengel says that bloggers and the people who upload videos onto YouTube (sixty-five thousand new videos a day; 100 million watched each day) are bringing “events” to us in ways that are often more “authentic” than the services of traditional media. But authenticity is easy, and of no inherent value, if it is simply and necessarily the attribute of any bit of reality (“event”) captured on video.

Time’s Lev Grossman writes that “an explosion of productivity and innovation” is under way as “millions of minds that would otherwise have drowned in obscurity” become participants in “the global intellectual economy.” Grossman continues:

“Who actually sits down after a long day at work and says, I’m not going to watch ‘Lost’ tonight. I’m going to turn on my computer and make a movie starring my pet iguana? I’m going to mash up 50 Cent’s vocals with Queen’s instrumentals? I’m going to blog about my state of mind or the state of the union or the steak frites at the new bistro down the street? Who has that time and that energy and that passion?

“The answer is, you do. And for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game, Time’s Person of the Year for 2006 is you.”

There are, however, essentially no reins on the Web—few means of control and direction. That is good, but vitiates the idea that the Web’s chaos of entertainment, solipsism, and occasional intellectual seriousness and civic engagement is anything like a polity (a “digital democracy”). Time’s bow to the amateurs who are, it strangely suggests, no longer obscure, and in the same game that Time is in, is refuted by a glance—which is all an adult will want—at YouTube’s most popular videos.

Time’s issue includes an unenthralled essay by NBC’s Brian Williams, who believes that raptures over the Web’s egalitarianism arise from the same impulse that causes today’s youth soccer programs to award trophies—“entire bedrooms full”—to any child who shows up: “The danger just might be that we miss the next great book or the next great idea, or that we will fail to meet the next great challenge…because we are too busy celebrating ourselves and listening to the same tune we already know by heart.”

The fact that Stengel included Williams’s essay proves that Stengel’s Time has what 99.9 percent of the Web’s content lacks: seriousness.

[DECEMBER 21, 2006]

The Speciesism of Featherless Bipeds

One thinks twice, even thrice, before using in a magazine as decorous as Newsweek the four-letter F word that causes so much discord. But words should not be minced. So, what is being done for British pets is just not fair.

One wants to avoid speciesism, the moral disease of being species-centric. Still, why should British pets have more—25 percent more, to be precise—freedoms than humans do?

In January 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt envisioned a “world founded upon four essential human freedoms”—freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. In January 2006, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s—technically, Her Majesty’s—Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said pets should have five freedoms. The Animal Welfare Bill says the five are:

1. An appropriate diet.

2. Suitable living conditions.

3. Companionship or solitude, as the cat, canary, or gerbil prefers.

4. Monitoring for abnormal behavior.

5. Protection from pain, suffering, injury, and disease.

Well. Politicians’ jokes are usually recognizable as such because they elicit boisterous laughter from the politicians’ friends, families, and employees. But there is no evidence that Blair’s government is joking. The Labour Party, having recently saved the foxes from the fox hunters and their hounds, is serious—not to say grim and humorless—about perfecting society.

Besides, it is not funny. It is Orwellian to say that when governments provide this and that benefit they are providing freedoms. As Bishop Joseph Butler (1692–1752) said, back when clear thinking was a British attribute, “Everything is what it is, and not another thing.” Appropriate diets, suitable living conditions, etc., are not “freedoms.” They are nice things, but they could be provided by a benevolent despot. Freedom is about the absence of some things—of coercion, dependency, restraints not consented to—and the presence of institutions and the habits, mores, customs, and dispositions that sustain those absences. But nowadays there is confusion arising from a non sequitur that governments encourage: Freedom is a nice thing, therefore governments that provide nice things are expanding freedom.

The Times of London reports that pet owners will be supplied with lots of rules. Such as: “Dogs should be introduced to cats very carefully.” What would we do without government to guide us? The pet police, who will be empowered to enter houses and seize animals, will enforce rules like the one that pets must have “mental stimulation” sufficient to ward off boredom and frustration. A nine-point guide about cats “going to the toilet” mandates provisions for privacy. A British headline: GET YOUR CAT A PRIVATE LOO OR EXPECT PET POLICE. ANOTHER: LABOUR’S PET POLICE MAY POUNCE IF YOUR DOG GETS BORED. The Times says a code of conduct for invertebrates, such as lobsters, may be coming.

You will not be surprised that in America, it is San Francisco (which has more dogs—an estimated 110,000—than children) that is especially punctilious about codifying animal entitlements. One such is that a dog’s water must be changed at least once a day, and must be served in a nontipping bowl. A San Franciscan who has two Dobermans says pets “need as much care as a child does.” The chairman of the commission that drafted the nontipping-water-bowl ordinance says much of its language replicates that of a Los Angeles ordinance. So there.

But if British pets are going to have five freedoms, we must ask: Did FDR, who stipulated that he was enumerating four “human” freedoms, shortchange us? Humans, too, are animals—featherless bipeds, as Plato said. It seems, however, that the ruling pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm were correct: Some animals—British pets—are more equal than others. So, what is to be done to erase the 25 percent freedom advantage enjoyed by lower animals—is it still legal in Britain to use that locution?—such as British pets?

When Woodrow Wilson proclaimed his Fourteen Points that would guarantee a sweeter world, Georges Clemenceau complained that God had only ten. But Americans believe in going the competition one better. So when President George W. Bush—who says that “freedom is on the march” everywhere, which it is, except where it isn’t—is done perfecting the switch-grass-powered automobile, he should step up to the challenge. It is time to add two freedoms to FDR’s four. How about:

Freedom from government attempts to codify and supervise every transaction between people, let alone those between people and their hamsters and turtles and tropical fish.

And: Freedom from the idea that we have only as many freedoms—speaking correctly, only as much freedom—as governments in their graciousness choose to enumerate.

[FEBRUARY 13, 2006]

What We Owe to What We Eat

Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, is the most interesting conservative you have never heard of. He speaks barely above a whisper and must be the mildest disturber of the peace. But he is among the most disturbing.

If you value your peace of mind, not to mention your breakfast bacon, you should not read Scully’s essay “Fear Factories: The Case for Compassionate Conservatism—for Animals.” It appeared in the May 23, 2005, issue of Pat Buchanan’s magazine, the American Conservative—not where you would expect to find an essay arguing that industrial livestock farming involves vast abuses that constitute a serious moral problem.

The disturbing facts about industrial farming by the $125 billion-a-year livestock industry—the pain-inflicting confinements and mutilations—have economic reasons. Ameliorating them would impose production costs that consumers would pay. But to glimpse what consumers would be paying to stop, visit factoryfarming.com/gallery.htm. Or read Scully on the miseries inflicted on billions of creatures “for our convenience and pleasure”:

“…400-to 500-pound mammals trapped without relief inside iron crates seven feet long and 22 inches wide. They chew maniacally on bars and chains, as foraging animals will do when denied straw…The pigs know the feel only of concrete and metal. They lie covered in their own urine and excrement, with broken legs from trying to escape or just to turn…”

It is, Scully says, difficult, especially for conservatives, to examine cruelty issues on their merits, or even to acknowledge that something serious can be at stake where animals are concerned. This is partly because some animal-rights advocates are so off-putting. See, for example, the February 3, 2003, letter that Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—animals other than humans—sent to the terrorist Yasir Arafat, complaining that an explosive-laden donkey was killed when used in a Jerusalem massacre.

The rhetoric of animal “rights” is ill-conceived. The starting point, says Scully, should be with our obligations—the requirements for living with integrity. In defining them, some facts are pertinent, facts about animals’ emotional capacities and their experience of pain and happiness. Such facts refute what conservatives deplore—moral relativism. They do because they demand a certain reaction and evoke it in good people, who are good because they consistently respect the objective value of fellow creatures.

It may be true that, as has been said, the Puritans banned bearbaiting not because it gave pain to the bears but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. And there are indeed degrading pleasures. But to argue for outlawing cruelty to animals because it is bad for the cruel person’s soul is to accept, as Scully does not, that man is the only concern.

Statutes against cruelty to animals, often imposing felony-level penalties, codify society’s belief that such cruelty is an intrinsic evil. This is a social affirmation of a strong moral sense in individuals who are not vicious. It is the sense that even though the law can regard an individual’s animal as the individual’s property, there nevertheless are certain things the individual cannot do to that property. Which means it is property with a difference.

The difference is the capacity for enjoyment and suffering. So why, Scully asks, is cruelty to a puppy appalling and cruelty to livestock by the billions a matter of social indifference? There cannot be any intrinsic difference of worth between a puppy and a pig.

Animal suffering on a vast scale should, he says, be a serious issue of public policy. He does not want to take away your BLT; he does not propose to end livestock farming. He does propose a Humane Farming Act to apply to corporate farmers the elementary standards of animal husbandry and veterinary ethics: “We cannot just take from these creatures, we must give them something in return. We owe them a merciful death, and we owe them a merciful life.”

Says who? Well, Scully replies, those who understand “Judeo-Christian morality, whose whole logic is one of gracious condescension, or the proud learning to be humble, the higher serving the lower, and the strong protecting the weak.”

Yes, of course: You don’t want to think about this. Who does? But do your duty: Read his book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. Scully, a conservative and hence a realist, knows that man is not only a rational creature but a rationalizing creature, putting his intellectual nimbleness in the service of his desires. But refraining from cruelty is an objective obligation. And as Scully says, “If reason and morality are what set humans apart from animals, then reason and morality must always guide us in how we treat them.”

You were warned not to read this. Have a nice day.

[JULY 18, 2005]

The Holocaust: Handcrafted

Little by little we were taught all these things. We grew into them.

—ADOLPH EICHMANN

These are the best of times for the worst of people. And for the toxic idea at the core of all the most murderous ideologies of the modern age. That idea is that human nature is, if not a fiction, at least so watery and flimsy that it poses no serious impediment to evil political entities determined to treat people as malleable clay to be molded into creatures at once submissive and violent.

All political philosophies rest on notions of human nature. And what we think human nature is—indeed, whether we think there is such a thing—depends somewhat on conclusions we draw from political events, such as these: A mother rejoicing that her teenage child has blown herself up in the process of blowing up other mothers’ children. A Palestinian infant dressed as a suicide bomber—parents will have glittering dreams for their children.

There was violence, but there were not suicide bombers with celebrating choruses, when Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority thugocracy began its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. After eight years of incitements—in schools, mosques, mass media—to anti-Semitic genocide, those areas now need de-Nazification. Eichmann’s “little by little” has been compressed into just eight years.

Historian Richard Rhodes’s new Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust may not be the ideal beach book. But this latest contribution to the debate about the origins of Nazi behavior—the processes of socialization to butchery—is dreadfully timely.

Much has been made of the Nazis’ “modern” and “scientific” means of “industrializing” mass murder—railroads leading to gas chambers. But most Holocaust murders were, Rhodes says, “handcrafted,” one at a time, using bullets, often fired at such close range that the shooters were splattered with gore. Himmler worried that this involved suffering—by his perpetrators.

After long days of Sardinenpackung (having Jews lay down on the last layer of those already murdered, in order to efficiently fill killing pits), Himmler hoped the performers of “this burdensome duty” would relax in civilized evenings: “The comradely gathering must on no account, however, end in the abuse of alcohol. It should be an evening on which—as far as possible—they sit and eat at table in the best German domestic style, and music, lectures and the introductions to the beauties of German intellectual and emotional life occupy the hours.”

Of course there was shop talk, too. At one post-massacre dinner, an officer explained that his more experienced killers tossed children into the air to shoot them, not out of unseemly exuberance, but because bullets often passed through children’s bodies, so shooting them on floors or streets could cause dangerous ricochets.

Rhodes’s most disturbing vignette is not of the German walking with a year-old baby impaled on his bayonet, still crying weakly. More chilling, in its way, is this: One supervisor of massacres “had the photographs taken at the executions developed at two photographic shops in southern Germany and showed them to his wife and friends.” Were the technicians who developed the film perturbed? The wife and friends—was their moral sense, which supposedly is part (a large part? a durable part?) of human nature, disturbed?

Civilization’s enemies attack civilization’s foundational idea, the proposition that human nature is not infinitely plastic, that people cannot be socialized to accept or do anything. These enemies believe that human beings have no common nature, no shared moral sense that is a component of a universal human nature. Rather, all we have in common is a capacity to acquire an infinite variety of cultures, however vile.

Rhodes’s book contributes evidence to the debate about the roles of nature and nurture, of ideology and peer pressure and other things in the making of people who participate in mass murder. The Palestinian Authority is also contributing much evidence. Rhodes’s book, and Arafat’s willing executioners of Jews, and Palestinian parents who rejoice at the suicides of their murderous children, and Palestinian street mobs drunk with delight about dismembered Jews—all these point to a conclusion: Teaching (to use Eichmann’s verb) such participants is disturbingly easy.

With the recent terrorist bomb planted to kill young people at an Israeli university, terrorists reached an apogee, a purity of evil, simultaneously targeting youth and learning. In Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent (1907), a novel about terrorism, a theorist of terror justifies targeting England’s Greenwich observatory. Mere butchery is a bit banal, so:

“The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy. Since bombs are your means of expression, it would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics. But that is impossible.”

Such are the disappointments of modern barbarians, who otherwise are prospering.

[AUGUST 19, 2002]

The “Daring” of the Avant-Garde Yet Again

NEW YORK—An iron law of avant-garde art is that theorizing expands to fill a void of talent. That law explains the execrable exhibit “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art,” now in its final days at the Jewish Museum at the corner of Ninety-second Street and Fifth Avenue.

The works by thirteen “internationally recognized” artists make, the museum brochure says, “new and daring use of imagery taken from the Nazi era.” In the cant of artists’ self-puffery, the word daring usually means artists are daring to strike political poses that are imbecilic and, among the avant-garde, fashionable. Here the artists daringly draw “unnerving connections between the imagery of the Third Reich and today’s consumer culture.”

Examples of the works are:

“Giftgas Giftset,” three replicas of Zyklon B gas canisters in the colors, and bearing the logos, of Chanel, Hermès, and Tiffany’s. “Prada Deathcamp” is a model of a concentration camp on cardboard from a Prada hatbox. The exhibit catalog theorizes that the artist “dares to observe Holocaust museums and their visitors from the position of a critique of consumption.” These two works ask the “irreconcilable” (does the illiterate author mean unanswerable?) question of “whether the artist is fascinated by the label-logo culture or mocking it.”

“LEGO Concentration Camp Set” consists of replicas of boxes of the children’s building blocks, but the boxes bear photographs of models of barracks and crematoria. The catalog theorizes that this work shows “how such seemingly harmless items may pose serious psychological and philosophical questions about gender, sexuality, and childhood.”

In “It’s the Real Thing—Self-Portrait at Buchenwald,” the artist digitally inserts a photograph of himself, holding a Diet Coke, into the foreground of a famous photograph of emaciated Jews in their bunks shortly after the liberation of Buchenwald. The catalog theorizes that this work “draws parallels between brainwashing tactics of the Nazis and commodification. Just as much of Europe succumbed to Nazi culture because it was the dominant paradigm, so does our contemporary culture succumb to consumerism.”

Enough. The smug narcissism and overbearing didacticism, all expressed in jargon-clotted prose about “aesthetic strategies” and “transgressive images,” is repulsive. The use of genocide as a plaything for political posturing is contemptible. What was the Jewish Museum thinking, and why did it not think again after September 11?

Many of the works in “Mirroring Evil” are based on photographs (there are no oil paintings), which should demonstrate that photography has said almost everything that can properly be expressed graphically about the Holocaust. But, then, “Mirroring Evil” is evil because it really has nothing to do with the murder of 6 million Jews. Rather, it is an exhibit of the artists’ exhibitionism, their fathomless fascination with their shallow selves. And “Mirroring Evil,” although an extreme example, is hardly the only example of the miniaturization of the Holocaust, the turning of tragedy into mere raw material for intellectuals’ fads.

In the June 14 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, William F. S. Miles, professor of Jewish historical and cultural studies at Northeastern University, reflects uneasily on his experience at a two-week course for college teachers conducted by the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. There he heard colleagues say how the explosive growth of Holocaust studies has turned that genocide into a “wonderful, creative teaching opportunity.”

Participants in the course said “a gendered approach to the Holocaust is truly exciting” and “we can examine victims in terms of their class, too, or their national origins” and “you can tie [the Holocaust] in to dance, art, architecture. Even Web-page making.” Miles reports: “Repeated analogies between victims of the Holocaust and battered women in America are made…. There also is implied criticism of articulate survivors: ‘We privilege them because they are eloquent.’” Miles’ mild response is:

“Experts are no longer eyewitnesses but rather clever scholars with the latest new angles, spins or hypotheses. All one can hope is that the intellectualization of the Holocaust be pursued in good faith with a modicum of sensitivity toward the survivors.”

But what hope can there be for even minimal decency and understanding when today’s intelligentsia is hospitable to trivializations of a huge tragedy? No vulgarity is unthinkable now that the Holocaust has become fodder for semi-intellectual wisecracks, the plaything of theory-weaving and ax-grinding academic and artistic mediocrities who discern a moral equivalence between commercial advertising and Nuremberg rallies.

A wit once said that everything changes except the avant-garde. But it does change. It gets worse.

[JUNE 20, 2002]

Anti-Semitism Across the Political Spectrum

It used to be said that anti-Catholicism was the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals. Today, anti-Semitism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals.

Not all intellectuals, of course. And the seepage of this ancient poison into the intelligentsia—always so militantly modern—is much more pronounced in Europe than here. But as anti-Semitism migrates across the political spectrum from right to left, it infects the intelligentsia, which has leaned left for two centuries.

Here the term intellectual is used loosely, to denote not only people who think about ideas—about thinking—but also people who think they do. The term anti-Semitism is used precisely, to denote people who dislike Jews. These people include those who say: We do not dislike Jews, we only dislike Zionists—although to live in Israel is to endorse the Zionist enterprise, and all Jews are implicated, as sympathizers, in the crime that is Israel.

Wednesday’s release of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ has catalyzed fears of resurgent anti-Semitism. Some critics say the movie portrays the governor of Judea—Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect responsible for the crucifixion—as more benign and less in control than he actually was, and ascribes too much power and malignity to Jerusalem’s Jewish elite.

Jon Meacham’s deeply informed cover story “Who Killed Jesus?” in the February 16 Newsweek renders this measured judgment: The movie implies more blame for the Jewish religious leaders of Judea of that time than sound scholarship suggests. However, Meacham rightly refrains from discerning disreputable intentions in Gibson’s presentation of matters about which scholars, too, must speculate, and do disagree. Besides, this being a healthy nation, Americans are unlikely to be swayed by the movie’s misreading, as Meacham delicately suggests, of the actions of a few Jews two thousand years ago.

Fears about the movie exacerbating religiously motivated anti-Semitism are missing the larger menace—the upsurge of political anti-Semitism. Like traditional anti-Semitism, but with secular sources and motives, the political version, which condemns Jews as a social element, is becoming mainstream, and chic among political and cultural elites, mostly in Europe. Consider:

• A cartoon in a mainstream Italian newspaper depicts the infant Jesus in a manger, menaced by an Israeli tank and saying “Don’t tell me they want to kill me again.” This expresses animus against Israel rather than twisted Christian zeal.

• The European Union has suppressed a study it commissioned, because the study blamed the upsurge in anti-Jewish acts on European Muslims—and the European left.

• An EU poll reveals that a European majority believes the greatest threat to world peace is Israel.

• Nineteen percent of Germans believe what a bestselling German book asserts: The CIA and Israel’s Mossad organized the September 11 attacks.

• On French television, a comedian wearing a Jewish skullcap gives a Nazi salute while yelling “Isra-Heil!”

• If Israel is not the Great Satan, it is allied with him—America. European anti-American demonstrations often include Israel’s blue and white flag with a swastika replacing the star of David, and signs perpetuating the myth, concocted by Palestinians and cooperative Western journalists, of an Israeli massacre in Jenin: “1943: Warsaw / 2002: Jenin.”

• Omer Bartov, historian at Brown University, writes in the New Republic that much of what Hitler said “can be found today in innumerable places: on Internet sites, propaganda brochures, political speeches, protest placards, academic publications, religious sermons, you name it.”

The appallingly brief eclipse of anti-Semitism after Auschwitz demonstrates how beguiling is the simplicity of pure stupidity. All of the left’s prescriptions for curing what ails society—socialism, communism, psychoanalysis, “progressive” education, etc.—have been discarded, so now the left is reduced to adapting that hardy perennial of the right, anti-Semitism.

This is a new twist to the left’s recipe for salvation through elimination: All will be well if we eliminate capitalists, or private property, or the ruling class, or “special interests,” or neuroses, or inhibitions. Now, let’s try eliminating a people, starting with their nation, which is obnoxiously pro-American and insufferably Spartan.

Europe’s susceptibility to political lunacy, and the Arab world’s addiction to it, is not news. And the paranoid style is a political constant. Those who believe a vast conspiracy assassinated President Kennedy say: Proof of the conspiracy’s diabolical subtlety is that no evidence of it remains. Today’s anti-Semites say: Proof of the Jews’ potent menace is that there are so few of them—just 13 million of the planet’s 6 billion people—yet they cause so many political, economic, and cultural ills.

Gosh. Imagine if they were, say, 1 percent of Earth’s population—63 million.

[FEBRUARY 25, 2004]

When Harry Remet Hanne

Among the radiating effects of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened along Washington’s Mall ten years ago, is the story of how Harry remet Hanne. The friendship of Harry Ettlinger, now seventy-seven, and Hanne Hirsch, now seventy-eight, was interrupted for sixty-four years by war and genocide.

It began when he lived on the second floor and she on the fourth floor of an apartment building in Karlsruhe, Germany, where they attended the same school. The friendship was renewed last spring, thanks to two New Jersey teenagers, Jennifer Bernardes, of an immigrant family from Brazil, and Leonie Barrett, of an immigrant family from Jamaica. Leonie’s sister is currently serving in the Persian Gulf.

Harry, a Holocaust survivor, participates in New Jersey’s “Adopt a Survivor” program that brings middle and high school students to the museum. Each student studies a survivor’s personal history and commits to tell his or her story in 2045, the one hundredth anniversary of the liberation of the death camps.

Museum visitors are issued identity cards recounting the history of someone who was swept up in the Holocaust whirlwind. Jennifer and Leonie noticed that one card detailed the life of a girl from Karlsruhe. Harry recognized Hanne Hirsch as the girl from the fourth floor. He had not known her fate. But when he looked her up in the museum’s registry of survivors, he found that her good fortune was to be sheltered by the good people of the French Huguenot village of Le Chambon, in the south of France near Lyon. Hanne Hirsch Liebmann lives in New York with her husband, Max, eighty-one.

Hanne’s father and then her widowed mother ran a photography shop in Karlsruhe until Nazi anti-Jewish laws put them out of business in 1938. Hanne was sixteen in 1940 when she was deported to a camp in Vichy France. In the camp, she met Max Liebmann, then nineteen.

He got out of the camp and was sheltered illegally in Le Chambon until he could get into Switzerland. She received livesaving help from the villagers, whose long memories of the persecution of Huguenots fueled their resistance to German and Vichy crimes.

Jews still in the camp on August 1, 1942, were destined for Auschwitz. Hanne was legally removed to the village shortly before that, and in February 1943 she followed Max to Switzerland. They married, and in 1948 came to America.

Harry, who says he was “the last bar mitzvah boy in my synagogue,” fled Germany with his family after the Munich Agreement of September 1938. In January 1945, he was in a U.S. Army truck en route to join the infantry unit that soon would seize the Remagen bridge over the Rhine. He was plucked from the truck to become an interpreter. Among the Germans he interviewed after the war was Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s photographer, who had been an apprentice in Munich under Hanne’s uncle. Harry, Hanne, and Max had lunch together here this week while participating in the Holocaust Museum’s tenth anniversary observances.

In an editorial saluting the museum as “among the finest historical exhibits of any kind, on any subject, anywhere,” the Washington Post nevertheless recalled the “skeptical questions” asked when the museum was proposed. The questions concerned whether the Mall, which is the epicenter of America’s civic life, is a suitable site for a museum dedicated to an event of European and Jewish history. The Post said that the questions have been given “no adequate philosophical or theoretical answers.” Here are six answers.

The first answer has many facets: America is congenitally cheerful and hence relentlessly focused on the future, so it is susceptible to historical amnesia. And Americans, having uniquely broad and grave responsibilities in the world, must be trained to look life unblinkingly in the face. The Holocaust, the eruption of barbarism in modern Western civilization, is the black sun into which Americans, especially, must be taught to stare. The Holocaust Museum, a grim sermon in stone, is an experience of darkness amidst the Mall’s glistening monuments to the success of American society. It is a mind-opening reminder of the furies beyond our shores. The Mall’s welcoming geometry of openness suggests the symmetry and temperateness of America’s social arrangements. The museum, a counterpoint in one of the world’s most magnificent urban spaces, inflicts on visitors—almost 19 million of them so far—excruciating knowledge that is intensely relevant to this era of terrorism, knowledge of the hideous possibilities of human action.

Five other answers to the question of why the museum is pertinent to American experience and governance, and hence is properly on the Mall, are: Harry, Hanne, Max, Jennifer, and Leonie, Americans all.

[MAY 1, 2003]

Cars as Mobile Sculpture

DETROIT—One car company is running ads in which its suave forty-four-year-old CEO underscores his love for the outdoors by saying, “I won’t even stay in a hotel if I can’t open the windows.”

Another car company, its tone set by its seventy-year-old vice chairman—an ex-Marine aviator—is putting up three billboards. One shows a 1957 Chevy’s grille—think of Teddy Roosevelt’s grin in chrome—and says: “Proof your parents were actually cool once.” Another shows the rear deck of a little red 1963 Corvette Sting Ray and says: “They don’t write songs about Volvos.” The third shows the gritted-teeth grille of a 1970 Chevy Chevelle SS and says: “Not everyone wants a car with a bud vase on the dash.”

Guess which company is doing best.

Bill Ford’s problems at the company his great-grandfather founded are bigger than odd advertising. And there are many reasons why GM is soaring like the jet fighter Robert Lutz flies for fun. But institutions are the lengthening shadows of strong individuals, and Lutz is, in the elemental argot of this muscular city, a “car guy.”

When GM lured Lutz back into the car business last summer, the Detroit News headline (“Lutz Rides In to Rev Up GM”) was of a size usually reserved for Pearl Harbors or two-game Tiger winning streaks. But are Americans still “car people” the way they were when Lutz was young, in the 1950s?

Then they were automobile voluptuaries, Detroit was in its rococo period and its great stylist was GM’s Harley Earl, “the Cellini of chrome,” of whom it was said that if he could have put chrome on his clothes, he would have. Cars had front bumpers that were protuberant, not to say nubile, and tail fins. Cars looked, a wit said, “like chorus girls coming and fighter planes going.” Indeed, Buick’s LeSabre emulated the F-86 Sabre jet.

Lutz, tall and trim, knows that today’s Americans generally have a less erotic relationship with cars. They look upon many cars, he says, “as more or less an appliance.” As mere transportation. Utilitarian. Boring. Furthermore, twenty years ago, a “premium” car meant one substantially more capable. Today, premium technologies (e.g., high-tech engines, overhead cams) are everywhere.

But, Lutz says happily, your car is still “an extension of your psychomotor system.” More than the other stuff we surround ourselves with—do you know the brand of your refrigerator? will you replace it before it breaks down?—your car “continually makes an instant statement about you, even to complete strangers.”

So, Lutz insists, design is still central to success in the automobile business. Art is supposed to “evoke emotional responses” and cars are art—“mobile sculpture.” He also believes that when everybody else is doing it, don’t. Most cars today have rounded aerodynamic lines. But the new Cadillac CTS, with angular lines, is described in ads as “edgy.”

And when Lutz was at Chrysler a few years ago, he pushed through the development of the popular PT Cruiser, an echo of a 1937 Ford. Why? Surely not nostalgia. Probably most of the (mostly young) people buying these cars do not know who was president in 1937. Go figure.

Lutz believes that “aspirational aspects overwhelm the functional differences” when car customers make their choices. When that happens, the “left-analytical brain has been defeated again,” the “right brain” has prevailed, and Lutz rejoices. But this does not mean people plunk down large sums merely for high-status brands. Chevrolet sells more vehicles costing more than $30,000 than do Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, and Audi combined, but this is partly due to the popularity of light trucks, a category that includes sport utility vehicles. Today, an “extremely high-end demographic”—e.g., investment bankers and stockbrokers—are buying GMC SUVs.

Some Americans (let us avoid the term liberals) hate fun, such as cheeseburgers, talk radio, guns, Las Vegas, and cars that are larger than roller skates and that look more interesting than shoe boxes. They hated 1950s cars that looked—as a sniffy critic said—like jukeboxes on wheels. Such people love guilt, and want people to feel guilty about cars because cars have made possible suburbs, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and emancipation from public transportation.

GM’s “car guy” knows that Americans generally keep their cars longer than they used to—creeping utilitarianism—and do not define automotive fun as they did in the gaudy 1950s. But he is betting that lots of them still are guilty of letting their right brains rip when purchasing a car.

[APRIL 18, 2002]

Hog Heaven: Happy One Hundredth, Harley

MILWAUKEE—In 1903, young men (the hyperkinetic president was just forty-five) were on the move. The Wright brothers—Wilbur, thirty-six, and Orville, thirty-two—left their bicycle shop in Dayton to take their twelve-second, 120-foot flight at Kitty Hawk. And William Harley, twenty-one, and Arthur Davidson, twenty, working in a ten-by-fifteen-foot shed here, built a motorcycle. On the eve of its centennial, the company born in that shed is spectacularly successful, and one of America’s best-known brands. No American company has such devoted customers.

The Information Superhighway is littered with the wreckage of New Economy companies. But America’s real highways are humming with the distinctive sound of an iconic Old Economy product—Harley-Davidsons. Their sound (think potato-potato-potato) is so beloved by enthusiasts that the company tried to have it declared a trademark.

Last weekend, the company began a fourteen-month-long one-hundredth-birthday bash. It has much to celebrate, including increases in production of more than 10 percent annually for sixteen years. And 16 consecutive years of record earnings. And average annual earnings growth of 37 percent. And a share price up 15,000 percent since 1986, about nine times as much as General Electric’s, which is no slouch.

In the First World War, Harley-Davidson helped mechanize the Army—the first American to enter Germany after the armistice rode in on a Harley—and AMF bought the company in 1969. But by 1981, Harley-Davidson was reeling, partly because of Japanese imports. So thirteen of the company’s executives—including today’s CEO, Jeffrey Bleustein, sixty-two, a former Yale engineering professor—bought it for a highly leveraged $82 million.

In 1983, they got a five-year tariff protection, but recovery was so rapid they asked the government to end the protection a year early. The tariff—Bleustein doubts that anyone paid it—was a warning shot against “dumping” (selling at a price below the cost of manufacture) by the Japanese, who at the time had a two-year inventory in warehouses and were still producing full tilt. But the tariff exempted European manufacturers, who were not dumping, and the biggest Japanese maker, Honda, because its bikes were assembled in Ohio.

Today, the tariff seems as quaint as other relics of the 1980s, such as the U.S. feeling of inferiority regarding Japanese economic prowess, and the country-music lament “everything I buy these days has a foreign name.” Twenty years after the $82 million buyout, Harley’s sales were $3.3 billion and earnings $435 million, thanks to passionate motorcyclists of the sort who every August descend, three-hundred thousand strong, on Sturgis, South Dakota.

Hollywood—and a few motorcyclists—have made motorcyclists seem like bad boys, like Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1954) and Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider (1969). But most motorcyclists are middle-aged and middle class. The average Harley customer is forty-six and has a household income of $78,000. There are many riders in their seventies and eighties. Says Bleustein, himself a rider, “Even after they stop playing golf, they can still ride.”

The average Harley customer pays $15,000 for his machine, but some Harleys, such as those with music provided by a six-CD changer, can list for $22,000. Although output has been increased at the three factories—here and in York, Pennsylvania, and Kansas City, Missouri—demand so much exceeds supply (261,000 bikes this year) for some models that “scalpers” sell them for up to $4,000 over list. Some people sell their places on waiting lists. Others wait on the list, then sell their bikes at a markup before they even leave the dealer’s parking lot.

Honda sells more bikes in America than Harley does, but Harley dominates the high-profit market for heavy bikes (aka hogs), even in Japan, and has 21 percent of the Asia-Pacific market for all motorcycles. In America, 650,000 people pay $40 annual dues to be members of the Harley-owners group. They doubtless agree with the company that it is selling a “lifestyle.” This year bikers will spend more than $1 billion on Harley gear, from black motorcycle jackets for toddlers to Harley-Davidson fountain pens for bikers with literary aspirations.

Bleustein’s office, in the 1920 brick building where all the bikes once were made, features a glass tabletop supported by two Harley engines. He wears a gray suit, crisp white shirt, French cuffs—and a colorful Harley-Davidson necktie that is the sartorial equivalent of chrome. Many of the office workers dress as though they just got off their Harleys, which they did. Worldwide, says Bleustein, motorcycling means “freedom, adventure, individual expression.” As does America.

Harley-Davidson’s ten-city centennial tour begins this week in Atlanta and will rumble to Mexico City, Sydney, Tokyo, Barcelona, and on to Munich next July. It will culminate next August when a quarter of a million satisfied customers are expected to descend on Milwaukee to compare chrome and enjoy the music of their machines. Think: potato-potato-potato times 250,000.

[JULY 22, 2002]

Restoration at 346 Madison

This man now—surely he came from that heavenly world, that divine position at the center of things where choice is unlimited.

—MARY MCCARTHY, “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt” (1941)

Some business stories are social parables. One such is the long, stately rise, then the swift, undignified descent, and now the resurrection of Brooks Brothers, the men’s clothier that long ago became one of America’s iconic brands.

It was founded in 1818 near the southern tip of a mostly rural Manhattan. The day the store opened—the store that was to define American male gentility—the city council was fretting about swine in the streets.

As Manhattanites moved north, so did the store, several times. By 1915, it had moved to 346 Madison, at the corner of Forty-fourth, a store with dark wood and soft lighting from Tiffany chandeliers. Not until 1928 did Brooks Brothers open a second store, on Newbury Street in Boston. But long before that, 346 Madison had become for many men the quiet definer of sartorial good taste.

Generals Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and Hooker bought Civil War uniforms from Brooks Brothers. Lincoln wore a Brooks Brothers overcoat to his second inauguration, and to Ford’s Theatre. He was buried in a Brooks Brothers suit. J. P. Morgan, when he was a boy, was taken to Brooks Brothers for his first suit, and sixty years later was still buying suits there from the same salesman.

But although Brooks Brothers catered to the carriage trade, by pioneering high-quality ready-made garments it helped democratize dress. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson detested each other, but each was inaugurated in a Brooks Brothers suit. And after World War I, rising men in a nation brimming with confidence made Brooks Brothers a convenient literary symbol. Fitzgerald in This Side of Paradise, Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, John O’Hara, Somerset Maugham, and J. P. Marquand all used Brooks Brothers to suggest character traits—not always flatteringly. Clark Gable and Fred Astaire were Brooks Brothers customers.

Emblematic of Brooks Brothers’ power to define classicism was—is—what the company’s official history rightly calls “the single most imitated item in American clothing history.” It is the shirt with a button-down “polo collar,” so named because a grandson of the founder, visiting England, liked the way polo players buttoned down their collars to keep them from flapping during play.

The 1950s are disparaged by advanced thinkers as “buttoned down,” meaning too reticent and emotionally reserved. But the button-down shirt, a striped tie, and a “sack suit”—unpadded shoulders, not very wide lapels—became the 1950s “Ivy League look.” Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit bought it at Brooks Brothers. And in The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield’s adolescent disapproval of almost everything extended to “guys fitting your pants all the time at Brooks.”

Never mind. In 1960, the New York Times wrote of John Kennedy: “Though visibly exhausted from a long day in the Senate, he walked to the floor, a model of Brooks Brothers perfection.”

In 1956, the company’s president said, “Whenever we contemplate changing anything around here, a perceptible shudder goes through the store.” In the turbulent 1960s it took seven years for the lapels of Brooks Brothers suits to grow—in three increments—from three inches to three and a half. Then came the male peacockery of the 1980s. It was an era in which, a fashion historian writes, clothes—broad-shouldered Italian suits, suspenders, ties the size and color of Third World nations’ flags—became “badges of communication,” advertisements for the wearers.

And Brooks Brothers—sold, then sold again to a British department-store chain—decided to “get with it.” Big mistake.

Brooks Brothers had been, Newsweek wrote, “the last holdout against the 1980s ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’ mentality.” As “brand repositioning,” it began to compete with Gap, Banana Republic, and the like. “Casualization” was the ugly word for the ugly trend in men’s fashion. Brooks Brothers’ quality declined, the company’s old customers were scandalized—lavender dress shirts!—and the new customers were fickle. Brooks Brothers even opened a Fifth Avenue store that is all glass and stainless steel. Good grief.

Then, two years ago, a white knight rode to the rescue. A knight from—thank you, globalization—Italy. The new owner, Claudio Del Vecchio, says nobody can be J.Crew better than J.Crew, but only Brooks Brothers can be a fixed point in a world of flux.

Political parties decline when they alienate their core voters. The Episcopal Church, once the Brooks Brothers of American Protestantism, has lost a third of its members while courting new ones with trendy theological fashions. In the nick of time, Brooks Brothers has remembered that millions of men still think “buttoned down” is a phrase of praise.

[SEPTEMBER 1, 2003]

Starbucks, Nail Salons, and the Aesthetic Imperative

Creative thinkers do not merely answer questions that interest others, they answer questions that others have not realized are interesting, or even are questions. For example:

Starbucks’ coffee is not that much better than everyone else’s coffee, so what is Starbucks really selling?

What does it say about today’s America that travelers changing concourses in the United terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare airport pass beneath a 744-foot neon-light sculpture, the colors of which change in sync to music?

Why have the number of nail salons doubled, the number of manicurists tripled, and the number of cosmetic medical procedures almost quintupled in a decade? Why do 13 percent of middle-aged men spend more than $1 billion on hair coloring, up 34 percent in five years?

If computers are just tools, why bother making them as pretty as the Sony Vaio and Apple iMac?

How much of the booming membership in gyms is about something other than—more pleasurable than—health maintenance?

Virginia Postrel, an economics columnist for the New York Times who writes perceptively about everything on which her penetrating gaze alights, answers these questions, and others you may not have asked yourself, in her new book, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness. It is an appreciation of what she calls the “aesthetic imperative” in this expressive age.

Biologically we are, she says, visual, tactile beings responsive to our sensory surroundings. And we now are—thanks to such factors as travel, education, immigration, and media—producing a society of aesthetic plenitude and pluralism.

People are eager to pay Starbucks for more than mere coffee—for a sensory environment that pleases more than just their palates. Demand often creates supply, but supply can create demand: Travelers do not demand O’Hare’s neon light sculpture, but the supply of such aesthetic amenities raises expectations for a more pleasurable environment. And from gyms and nail salons to tattoo parlors and the emporia where people get their bodies pierced in so many interesting places, Americans are consuming design and designing themselves.

Time was, Henry Ford told customers they could have cars in the color they wanted, as long as they wanted black. Time was, Walter Gropius, the minimalist architect, when asked what he would say if some students did not like the way he had arranged the furniture in a Harvard dorm he designed, replied, “Then they are neurotic.”

But the breakdown of cultural homogeneity in the 1960s has been followed by what Postrel says are the twin propellants of today’s aesthetic abundance—rising incomes and falling prices. Household income has increased about 30 percent in less than thirty years, and families have shrunk, further expanding disposable income.

Economic data does not measure the increases that aesthetics add to quality of life. In national income statistics, a $20 steak dinner in an aesthetically pleasing restaurant is indistinguishable from a $20 steak dinner in a banal environment. Which means we are exaggerating inflation and underestimating the economy’s real production of value.

“Aesthetics,” says Postrel, “shows rather than tells, delights rather than instructs. The effects are immediate, perceptual and emotional. They are not cognitive, although we may analyze them after the fact.” Aesthetics, Postrel stresses, is not irrational or antirational, it is pre-rational or nonrational.

That does not mean it should be distrusted, as rhetoric has come to be, as a manipulative force manufacturing synthetic desires. Aspiration, Postrel believes, is an aspect of identity, including aesthetic identity—“I like that” means “I am like that.” Her cheerful analysis of all this puts her athwart a tradition of disapproving intellectuals.

Half a century ago, Adlai Stevenson, Democratic presidential nominee and darling of the intelligentsia, asked: “With the supermarket as our temple and the singing commercial as our litany, are we likely to fire the world with an irresistible vision of America’s exalted purposes and inspiring way of life?” His question radiated what was then—and still is; everything changes except “progressives”—the intellectuals’ conventional disdain of America’s “consumer society.”

Today, however, thoughtful people have more appreciation of the complex prerequisites—social, political, and intellectual—of a society that produces the abundance, and honors the emancipation of choice and desire, that results in supermarkets, advertising, and other things that are woven inextricably into the fabric of a free society. Those mundane things actually are related to what exalts America and makes it inspiring.

Unbounded, imaginative desiring can be a problem for democratic governance. However, it certainly is both a cause and a consequence of a democratic culture.

[OCTOBER 26, 2003]

Manners vs. Social Autism

Let’s be good cosmopolitans and offer sociological explanations rather than moral judgments about students, the Washington Post reports, having sex during the day in high schools. Sociology discerns connections, and there may be one between the fact that teenagers are relaxing from academic rigors by enjoying sex in the school auditorium, and the fact that Americans in public soon will be able to watch pornography, and prime-time television programs such as Desperate Housewives—and, for the high-minded, C-SPAN—on their cell phones and video iPods.

The connection is this: Many people have no notion of propriety when in the presence of other people, because they are not actually in the presence of other people, even when they are in public.

With everyone chatting on cell phones when not floating in iPod-land, “this is an age of social autism, in which people just can’t see the value of imagining their impact on others.” We are entertaining ourselves into inanition. (There are websites for people with Internet addiction. Think about that.) And multiplying technologies of portable entertainments will enable “limitless self-absorption,” which will make people solipsistic, inconsiderate, and antisocial. Hence manners are becoming unmannerly in this “age of lazy moral relativism combined with aggressive social insolence.”

So says Lynne Truss in her latest trumpet blast of a book, Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door. Her previous wail of despair was Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, which established her as—depending on your sensibility—a comma and apostrophe fascist (the liberal sensibility) or a plucky constable combating anarchy (the conservative sensibility).

Good punctuation, she says, is analogous to good manners because it treats readers with respect. “All the important rules,” she writes, “surely boil down to one: remember you are with other people; show some consideration.” Manners, which have been called “quotidian ethics,” arise from real or—this, too, is important in lubricating social frictions—feigned empathy.

“People,” says Truss, “are happier when they have some idea of where they stand and what the rules are.” But today’s entitlement mentality, which is both a cause and a consequence of the welfare state, manifests itself in the attitude that it is all right to do whatever one has a right to do. Which is why acrimony has enveloped a coffee shop on Chicago’s affluent North Side, where the proprietor posted a notice that children must “behave and use their indoor voices.” The proprietor, battling what he calls an “epidemic” of antisocial behavior, told the New York Times that parents protesting his notice “have a very strong sense of entitlement.”

A thoroughly modern parent, believing that children must be protected from feelings injurious to self-esteem, says: “Johnny, the fact that you did something bad does not mean you are bad for doing it.” We have, Truss thinks, “created people who will not stand to be corrected in any way.” Furthermore, it is a brave, or foolhardy, man who shows traditional manners toward women. In today’s world of “hair-trigger sensitivity,” to open a door for a woman is to play what Truss calls Gallantry Russian Roulette: You risk a high-decibel lecture on gender politics.

One writer on manners has argued that a nation’s greatness is measured not only by obedience of laws but also by “obedience to the unenforceable.” But enforcement of manners can be necessary. The well-named David Stern, commissioner of the NBA, recently decreed a dress code for players. It is politeness to the league’s customers who, weary of seeing players dressed in “edgy” hip-hop “street” or “gangsta” styles, want to be able to distinguish the Bucks and Knicks from the Bloods and Crips. Stern also understands that players who wear “in your face” clothes of a kind, and in a manner, that evokes Sing Sing more than Brooks Brothers might be more inclined to fight on the floor and to allow fights to migrate to the stands, as happened last year.

Because manners are means of extending respect, especially to strangers, this question arises: Do manners and virtue go together? Truss thinks so, in spite of the possibility of “blood-stained dictators who had exquisite table manners and never used their mobile phones in a crowded train compartment to order mass executions.”

Actually, manners are the practice of a virtue. The virtue is called civility, a word related—as a foundation is related to a house—to the word civilization.

[NOVEMBER 20, 2005]

A Punctuation Vigilante

The actress Margaret Anglin left this note in the dressing room of another actress: “Margaret Anglin says Mrs. Fiske is the best actress in America.” Mrs. Fiske added two commas and returned the note: “Margaret Anglin, says Mrs. Fiske, is the best actress in America.”

Little things mean a lot. That is the thesis of a wise and witty wee book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, just published by Lynne Truss, a British writer and broadcaster. She knows that proper punctuation, “the basting that holds the fabric of language in shape,” is “both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.”

The book’s title comes from a joke: A panda enters a café, orders a sandwich, eats, draws a pistol, fires a few shots, then heads for the door. Asked by a waiter to explain his behavior, he hands the waiter a badly punctuated wildlife manual and says: “I’m a panda. Look it up.” The waiter reads the relevant entry: “Panda: large black-and-white bear-like mammal. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Behold the magical comma. It can turn an unjust aspersion against an entire species (“No dogs please”) into a reasonable request (“No dogs, please”), or it can turn a lilting lyric into a banal inquiry (“What is this thing called, love?”). The Christmas carol actually is “God rest ye merry, gentlemen,” not “God rest ye, merry gentlemen.”

Huge doctrinal consequences flow from the placing of a comma in what Jesus, when on the cross, said to the thief: “Verily, I say unto thee, This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise” or “Verily, I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.” The former leaves little room for purgatory.

Combined with a colon, a comma can fuel sexual warfare: “A woman without her man is nothing” becomes “A woman: without her, man is nothing.” But a colon in place of a comma can subtly emit a certain bark.

“President Bush said, ‘Get Bob Woodward.’”

“President Bush said: ‘Get Bob Woodward.’”

But beware the derangement known as commaphilia, which results in the promiscuous cluttering of sentences with superfluous signals. A reader once asked James Thurber why he had put a comma after the word dinner in this sentence: “After dinner, the men went into the living room.” Thurber, a comma minimalist, blamed the New Yorker’s commaphilic editor, Harold Ross: “This particular comma was Ross’ way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.”

Truss, a punctuation vigilante, says punctuation marks are traffic signals telling readers to slow down, pause, notice something, take a detour, stop. Punctuation, she says, “directs you how to read, in the same way musical notation directs a musician how to play” with attention to the composer’s intentions regarding rhythm, pitch, tone, and flow.

The almost-always-ghastly exclamation point has been rightly compared to canned laughter. F. Scott Fitzgerald said it was like laughing at your own joke. But not always. Victor Hugo, wondering how his Les Misérables was selling, sent this telegram to his publisher: “?” The publisher wired back: “!”

The dash can be, among other things, droll, as Byron understood:

He learned the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery,

And how to scale a fortress—or a nunnery.

Or:

A little still she strove, and much repented,

And whispering “I will ne’er consent”—

consented.

The humble hyphen performs heroic services, making possible compounds that would otherwise be unsightly (“de-ice” rather than “deice” “shell-like” rather than “shelllike”). And a hyphen can rescue meaning. As Truss says, “A cross-section of the public is quite different from a cross section of the public.” If you are a pickled-herring merchant, you will not want to be called a pickled herring merchant. The difference between extra-marital sex and extra marital sex is not to be sneezed at.

The connection between the words punctilious, which means “attentive to formality or etiquette,” and punctuation is instructive. Careful punctuation expresses a writer’s solicitude for the reader. Of course punctuation, like most other forms of good manners, may yet entirely disappear, another victim of progress, this time in the form of e-mail, cell-phone text messages, and the like.

Neither the elegant semicolon nor the dashing dash is of use to people whose preferred literary style is “CU B48?” and whose idea of Edwardian prolixity is: “Saw Jim—he looks gr8—have you seen him—what time is the thing 2morrow.”

Oh, for the era when a journalist telephoned from Moscow to London to add a semicolon to his story!

[MAY 20, 2004]

America’s Literature of Regret

His name was George F. Babbitt. He was forty-six years old now, in April, 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.

—SINCLAIR LEWIS, Babbitt (1922)

But today his name is Warren Schmidt. He is sixty-six now as he stolidly watches the clock on his otherwise bare office wall tick the final seconds of his career as an actuary at Woodmen of the World Insurance in Omaha.

Babbitt begins: “The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings.” Beautiful, Lewis intimates, if only because of the frankness of their banality.

About Schmidt, the new Jack Nicholson movie, begins with the camera lingering on a flat slab of a spire in Omaha, the Woodmen building, which is replicated in the cake at Schmidt’s retirement party that evening. If “party” is applicable to so flat an affair. Flat as champagne that has lost its fizz. Flat as the Midwest landscape through which Schmidt, suddenly widowed, rolls, a depressed Jack Kerouac in a gigantic Winnebago, on the road to Denver to try to forestall yet another disappointment, the marriage of his daughter to a waterbed salesman Schmidt despises.

In the novel on which About Schmidt is loosely based, Schmidt retires from a Manhattan law firm to Long Island affluence. So why (other than the fact that director Alexander Payne is from Omaha) turn Schmidt into a stereotypical Midwesterner whose taciturnity is presumably symptomatic not of still waters running deep, but only of a low emotional metabolism?

Because it is still very modern to suppose that people like Schmidt who do not “share their feelings” have none. And because it is very traditional to disparage life in the Midwest’s small towns, such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919).

In 1920, Sinclair Lewis, from Sauk Centre, Minnesota, who in 1930 became the first American winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, published Main Street, an unaffectionate depiction of fictional Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, where individualism is suffocated by what would later be called “conformity.” In England, E. M. Forster said Lewis had lodged “a piece of a continent”—the Midwest—“in our imagination.”

Also in 1920, another Minnesotan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, published This Side of Paradise, in which Amory Blaine decides he has “grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” But whereas Fitzgerald came East to be exhilarated by Princeton and the 1920s, and kept moving east, to Europe, Lewis was unhappy at Yale and looked back in anger at the Midwest. His curdled spirit considered that region unforgivably middling—no longer a heroic frontier, never likely to become more than (as another young Midwesterner, Ernest Hemingway, called his native Oak Park, Illinois) a place of “broad lawns and narrow minds.”

Some critics insist that the portraits of Winesburg, Gopher Prairie, Zenith and Schmidt’s Omaha are “really” sympathetic. Perhaps the recurring cows in About Schmidt (in paintings on a restaurant wall, in a cattle truck) are not supposed to suggest that the people, too, are bovine. See the movie and decide for yourself if it is yet another exercise in condescension. As Evan Connell’s two nuanced novels about Mr. and Mrs. Bridge of Kansas City (and the Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward movie made from them) are not.

“I don’t say he’s a great man,” says Linda Loman of her husband, Willy, in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), another depiction of disappointed American striving. But, she says, “attention must be finally paid to such a person.” Surely ample attention is paid. The likes of Loman, Babbitt, and Schmidt inhabit a large American literature of regret. Which may be what Schmidt is feeling in the movie’s final frame, when he is reduced to tears by receiving in the mail the slender evidence of his single success in connecting with another—a drawing from a six-year-old Tanzanian boy to whom Schmidt has sent hilariously inapposite, hence unconnecting, letters.

Babbitt says, “I’ve never done a single thing I wanted to in my whole life! I don’t know’s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along.” However, a haunting sense of regret about time wasted is a timeless theme of literature. Timeless, and placeless. It is the human condition, not a Midwestern affliction.

[JANUARY 16, 2003]

Chief Illiniwek and the Indignation Industry

The University of Illinois must soon decide whether, and if so how, to fight an exceedingly silly edict from the NCAA. That organization’s primary function is to require college athletics to be no more crassly exploitative and commercial than is absolutely necessary. But now the NCAA is going to police cultural sensitivity, as it understands that. Hence the decision to declare Chief Illiniwek “hostile and abusive” to Native Americans.

Censorship—e.g., campus speech codes—often are academic liberalism’s preferred instrument of social improvement, and now the NCAA’s censors say: The Chief must go, as must the university’s logo of a Native American in feathered headdress. Otherwise the NCAA will not allow the university to host any postseason tournaments or events.

This story of progress, as progressives understand that, began during halftime of a football game in 1926, when an undergraduate studying Indian culture performed a dance dressed as a chief. Since then, a student has always served as Chief Illiniwek, who has become the symbol of the university that serves a state named after the Illini confederation of about a half-dozen tribes that were virtually annihilated in the 1760s by rival tribes.

In 1930, the student then portraying Chief Illiniwek traveled to South Dakota to receive authentic raiment from the Oglala Sioux. In 1967 and 1982, representatives of the Sioux, who had not yet discovered that they were supposed to feel abused, came to the Champaign-Urbana campus to augment the outfits Chief Illiniwek wears at football and basketball games.

But grievance groups have multiplied, seeking reparations for historic wrongs, and regulations to assuage current injuries inflicted by “insensitivity.” One of America’s booming businesses is the indignation industry that manufactures the synthetic outrage needed to fuel identity politics.

The NCAA is allowing Florida State University and the University of Utah to continue calling their teams Seminoles and Utes, respectively, because those two tribes approve of the tradition. The Saginaw Chippewa tribe starchily denounces any “outside entity”—that would be you, NCAA—that would disrupt the tribe’s “rich relationship” with Central Michigan University and its teams, the Chippewas. The University of North Carolina at Pembroke can continue calling its teams the Braves. Bravery is a virtue, so perhaps the 21 percent of the school’s students who are Native Americans consider the name a compliment.

The University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux may have to find another nickname because the various Sioux tribes cannot agree about whether they are insulted. But the only remnant of the Illini confederation, the Peoria tribe, is now in Oklahoma. Under its chief, John Froman, the tribe is too busy running a casino and golf course to care about Chief Illiniwek. The NCAA ethicists probably reason that the Chief must go because no portion of the Illini confederation remains to defend him.

Or to be offended by him, but never mind that, or this: In 1995, the Office of Civil Rights in President Clinton’s Education Department, a nest of sensitivity mongers, rejected the claim that the Chief and the name Fighting Illini created for anyone a “hostile environment” on campus.

In 2002, Sports Illustrated published a poll of 351 Native Americans, 217 living on reservations, 134 living off. Eighty-one percent said high school and college teams should not stop using Indian nicknames.

But in any case, why should anyone’s disapproval of a nickname doom it? When, in the multiplication of entitlements, did we produce an entitlement for everyone to go through life without being annoyed by anything, even a team’s nickname? If some Irish or Scots were to take offense at Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish or the Fighting Scots of Monmouth College, what rule of morality would require the rest of us to care? Civilization depends on, and civility often requires, the willingness to say, “What you are doing is none of my business” and “What I am doing is none of your business.”

But this is an age when being an offended busybody is considered evidence of advanced thinking and an exquisite sensibility. So, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has demanded that the University of South Carolina’s teams not be called Gamecocks because cock fighting is cruel. It also is illegal in South Carolina.

In 1972, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst replaced the nickname Redmen with Minutemen. White men carrying guns? If some advanced thinkers are made miserable by this, will the NCAA’s censors offer relief? Scottsdale Community College in Arizona was wise to adopt the nickname Fighting Artichokes. There is no grievance group representing the lacerated feelings of artichokes. Yet.

[JANUARY 5, 2006]

Christmas at Our Throats

ORANGE CITY, FLORIDA—A mob of shoppers rushing for a sale on DVD players trampled the first woman in line and knocked her unconscious as they scrambled for the shelves at a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

—ASSOCIATED PRESS

In sorting out the sociological significance of the fact that rival shoppers, according to the trampled woman’s sister, “walked over her like a herd of elephants,” note that elephants do not behave that way to others of their species, even when they are stampeded by a 6 a.m. siren announcing, on the famously anarchic day after Thanksgiving, open season on a finite supply of $29 DVD players. But, then, elephants do not have Christmas celebrations.

Conservatives, in their simplistic way, will blame the Florida trampling on facets of human nature to which the Christmas story pertains—mankind’s fallen condition, meaning original sin. Liberals, being less judgmental and more alert to the social causes of things, will blame Wal-Mart. They already blame it for many flaws in creation, from low wages in Asia to America’s “loss of community,” by which liberals mean the migration of shoppers from large-hearted Main Street merchants to the superior variety and lower prices at the Wal-Mart on the edge of town.

But at the risk of sounding like Ebenezer Scrooge, who was not the character in English literature who said, “We shall soon be having Christmas at our throats,” consider a possibility. Perhaps, as liberals like to say, the “root cause” of modern Christmas discontents is the ruinous success of Puritanism—ruinous, that is, to Puritanism.

That Christmas-at-our-throats fellow is a character in a novel by P. G. Wodehouse, who was as sweet-tempered as Scrooge was not. If the Christmas season, as it has become, could cause the preternaturally amiable Wodehouse to pen such a dark thought, how did it come to this?

That God works in mysterious ways is not news, but it is particularly puzzling that the birth of Jesus occurred when Romans, who then set the tone of the times, were celebrating Saturnalia—think of a Wal-Mart at 6 a.m., plus wine, women wearing less than those little Wal-Mart vests, and songs that are not carols. Songs that would not have been amusing to Oliver Cromwell, whose piety caused him to ban the celebration of Christmas.

He did the right thing for the wrong reason. A Puritan scold and a killjoy, he thought Christmas had become too much fun, which is not our problem today, unless getting trampled at a mall is your idea of merriment.

Today’s problem, in addition to the toll taken on the body by seasonal wassailing and gorging, is shopping that includes stocking up on “retaliation presents.” They are used to counter unexpected gift giving by persons not on your list, which by now includes family, friends, the stockbroker who got you out of Enron in time, and the person who cleans your gutters.

The first Americans included a number of Cromwell’s fellow travelers, who, like him, saw the long arm of the papacy behind Christmas festiveness. It was, they thought, a short slide down a slippery slope from liturgical “smells and bells” to jingle bells and mulled cider. But in a delicious dialectic, the modern hedonistic Christmas emerged from the cultural contradictions of Puritanism.

Puritanism inculcated Scrooge-like asceticism, deferral of gratification, green-eyeshade parsimony, and nose-to-the-grindstone industriousness. But those led to accumulation, investment of surplus capital, and, in time, prodigies of production and a subversive—to Puritanism—cornucopia of material delights.

Soon there were department stores, those cathedrals of consumption. Against their plate-glass windows—prerequisites of “window shopping” precursors of the holiday shopping catalog—were pressed the noses of the Puritans’ descendants.

Those noses no longer detected a sulfurous stench of damnation wafting from the stores’ perfume counters. Those counters, you may have noticed, are strategically placed on the stores’ first floors, to start the shoppers’ pleasure synapses firing.

The Wal-Mart stampede style of Christmas was a long time coming. It was, for example, not until 1885 that federal workers were even given Christmas Day off. Which, come to think about it, is odd. Here in modern Washington, Christmas Day is one of the minority of days that are not like Christmas elsewhere—not devoted to the lavish disbursal of gifts.

At least a portion of the government’s largesse can be considered a gift because part of the cost is debt that will be paid by others. By future generations. They are not consulted, but surely they will pay cheerfully, in the Christmas spirit.

[DECEMBER 4, 2003]