As the Indian Wars wind down, a battle-hardened soldier played by Christian Bale escorts a dying Cheyenne chief to his ancestral lands.
The beginning of “Hostiles” is dark in its external aspect and darker still as a spiritual landscape. The time is 1892, when the Indian wars have started to wind down, and the place is a U.S. Cavalry fort in New Mexico, where scores of American Indian prisoners languish in cages. If that’s not appalling enough, two soldiers reminisce at length about “the good days” of the conflict, when savagery was a way of life and one of the men, Capt. Joe Blocker—a remarkable portrayal by Christian Bale —may have taken more scalps than any of his enemies did. Scott Cooper’s fourth feature, which goes into national distribution next week, is most powerfully about what violence does to the soul: Joe is almost dead to the world, and to himself. Not quite, though. This harshly beautiful film is equally about his regeneration during the course of a journey that amounts to a parable of humanity trying to climb out of the pit of endless slaughter and retribution.
What precipitates the trip is a goodwill gesture from Washington. One of the prisoners, a Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hawk ( Wes Studi, superb as always), is terminally ill with cancer, and President Benjamin Harrison wants him and his family escorted back to their ancestral lands in Montana before the old man dies. When Joe is chosen to lead the escort party, he refuses at first; far from dancing with wolves, the veteran Indian fighter would be riding with mortal enemies. But Joe is a soldier who has always obeyed orders to kill, so he comes around to obeying this one too, especially since he’s about to retire and his pension is on the line.
“Hostiles” expands its emotional horizons when the escort party crosses paths with Rosalie Quaid, a woman who’s been driven to the brink of madness by an Indian attack on her family; she’s played by Rosamund Pike, who finally has a role worthy of her gifts. (Physical beauty can be limiting for movie actresses.) Mr. Cooper’s screenplay, which he adapted from a manuscript by Donald E. Stewart, is nothing if not ambitious, with echoes of classic westerns including “The Searchers”—most specifically in an inspired variation on a single shot at the end.
The pace is deliberate, though it’s punctuated by shocking spasms of violence, and the radiant cinematography, by Masanobu Takayanagi, does full justice to magnificent vistas along the way. (I can say that because I saw the film as it was meant to be seen at the Telluride Film Festival last fall. When I revisited it last weekend at an AMC multiplex in Santa Monica, the projection was so disgracefully dim that you might have thought the theater hadn’t paid its electricity bill. Poor projection is one more reason why increasing numbers of people are staying home and watching movies on their brilliant flat-panel TVs—even movies like this one that beg to be seen on big screens.)
The screenplay sometimes lapses into sermonizing, whether earnest (“Our treatment of the Native Americans cannot be forgiven,” a soldier tells one of the escort party’s Cheyenne charges) or sardonic (“Before long we’ll be giving them their land back,” says Ben Foster’s murderous Sgt. Charles Wills,” a prisoner himself being escorted back to civilization and the gallows). But the sermons are mercifully few and far between, and they aren’t needed in any case, for the dehumanizing rage on both sides of the racial divide is dramatized powerfully, and transmuted movingly, as the mostly white Americans—one soldier is black—and the American Indians make their way north along the Continental Divide.
Starting with a vision of the American West as a land ruled by brute force, “Hostiles” holds out the possibility of healing—of the aggrieved coming to see that their enemies have souls and consciences, just as they do; of unthinkable alliances being forged, if only temporarily, for the common good. (Distinctions are drawn between the Cheyenne, who have certainly done their share of killing, and other tribes that cling more fiercely to savage ways; Yellow Hawk says the Comanches are “not of sound mind.”) It’s played out fully on the taut face of Joe Blocker, a man who confronts the brute he’s become, only to discover that his insides haven’t died after all.
Two very different books explore the myths, metaphors and realities of William F. Cody’s Wild West show.
At the heart of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which thrilled audiences from 1883 to 1913, was a story about the struggle for the U.S. frontier. According to historian Richard White, the show featured the myth of the “inverted conquest,” depicting white Americans as victims suffering at the hands of their Native enemies and thus sanitizing their invasion of Indian country; in this telling, settler aggression was merely a form of self-defense. Not one to skimp on realism, William F. Cody (better known by his stage name, Buffalo Bill) enlisted dozens of Native people—some of whom had even fought against the U.S. military—to appear in his extravaganza, playing the foils. And for a brief stint in 1885, the Lakota holy man Sitting Bull, the era’s most famous Indian, was a celebrated member of the cast. A pair of new and starkly contrasting books considers his through-the-looking-glass experience starring in the endless rout of his own people.
In “Blood Brothers,” Deanne Stillman, a California-based author of four previous books about the West, offers a condensed history of the Wild West show, homing in on the unlikely bond between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull. Already regionally famous for his exploits as an Army scout and bison hunter, Cody became a bona fide national hero in 1876, when, a few weeks after the Indian victory at the Little Bighorn, he killed a Cheyenne warrior, taking “the first scalp for Custer.” Sitting Bull, by contrast, though not present at the annihilation of the Seventh Cavalry, was nevertheless blamed for the slaughter and fled to safety in Canada for five years before agreeing to confinement on the Standing Rock Reservation. Ms. Stillman explains that, despite the divergent paths they walked, a genuine friendship blossomed between the two men after the Sioux leader joined the Wild West show, begetting the slogan, “Foes in ’76, Friends in ’85.”
PHOTO: UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES
By Deanne Stillman
Simon & Schuster, 286 pages, $27
SORROW OF THE EARTH
By Éric Vuillard
Pushkin Press, 155 pages, $19.95
Cody banked on Sitting Bull’s notoriety to draw crowds. And spectators flocked to the show—some came to boo and hiss, but many others to gaze with fascination upon “the Napoleon of the Great Plains,” as he was billed. In exchange for Sitting Bull’s participation—which consisted of a single turn around the arena, in a buggy or on horseback—he was the highest-paid member of the ensemble and retained exclusive rights to the sale of his image and autograph, which proved to be lucrative. But by the end of his first season he had tired of life on the road and wished only to return home to South Dakota. It was there, in December 1890, that he was killed by his own people, when a group of reservation police came to arrest him in hope of containing the Ghost Dance movement.
“Blood Brothers” offers a brisk and compassionate retelling of a familiar story, but falters at times under the weight of its author’s dogged optimism about the redemptive power of this “strange friendship.” As Ms. Stillman muses in the introduction, “It would seem that America has embarked on the painful and necessary journey of healing our original sin—the betrayal of Native Americans. . . . Perhaps the brief time that Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill were together can serve as a foundation upon which this rift can be repaired.” It is an alluring thought. And yet, the recent completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline across Sioux land where Sitting Bull once lived, despite massive, pan-Indian opposition, is a reminder that tribal sovereignty, the linchpin of Native revitalization, remains precarious due to the overweening power of federal authority.
The novelist and film director Éric Vuillard, whose recent book about Hitler won the Goncourt Prize for 2017, shares none of Ms. Stillman’s optimism. First published in France in 2014 to great acclaim, his “Sorrow of the Earth” (translated into crisp and colloquial English by Ann Jefferson ) is a pungent work of historical reimagining, blending fact and speculation to capture the perspective of Sitting Bull and other Native performers in Cody’s show. The picture that emerges is ugly and dispiriting. Gone is the coarse but avuncular Buffalo Bill of more established narratives. Whatever financial benefit the Indian participants receive is offset by their ruthless exploitation, which includes, after each performance, the hocking of trinkets “that derive from their genocide.” And the men, women and children in the audience, who turn out in droves, are stirred less by curiosity than their unquenchable (and unselfconscious) hatred of Native peoples.
Mr. Vuillard is primarily concerned with the concept of spectacle, never satisfactorily defined but apparently a heady mix of voyeurism and entertainment derived through fetishizing the exotic. If, as he suggests, modern Europeans invented the spectacle, built from artifacts ripped from colonized outposts around the world and displayed in gilded metropolitan museums, the Wild West show elevated it to a kinetic art form: “Movement and action. Reality itself. Yes, just galloping horses, re-enacted battles, suspense, people falling down dead and getting up again. It had everything.” Only in the United States, Mr. Vuillard intimates, could a huckster like Cody turn the tragedy of Native dispossession, still unfolding even as the Wild West toured across North America and Europe, into a garish, multimillion-dollar extravaganza, with the Indians playing themselves. Mr. Vuillard’s contempt for the show, its creator and its audience is palpable.
“Sorrow of the Earth” is a compulsive read, with short, sharp chapters that move easily from the arena floor to Wounded Knee to Cody’s eponymous town in northwestern Wyoming, which the author dismisses as an “icy desert.” Mr. Vuillard’s outrage is infectious, and sharing in his exasperation indemnifies readers against their own complicity in the fruits of unchecked 19th-century U.S. expansion. But as with many ad hominem indictments, over time the insults that stand in for argument come to seem lazy and imprecise. The same is true of sweeping generalizations and overstatements, intended to provoke reflection but which instead begin to clutter the book. Take this: “Civilization is a huge and insatiable beast. It feeds on everything.” Or this: “Previously, no American or any Westerner in the world had ever seen anything. Up until now, all they had seen was their dreams.” Such rhetorical devices are distracting, and lessen the impact of this unusual, and powerful, meditation on Native peoples and the Wild West show.
Ironically, because of their dramatic differences in style and tone, “Blood Brothers” and “Sorrow of the Earth” make boon companions. Ms. Stillman’s book manages to explain the inexplicable: why some Native people, whose nations were still at war with the United States, were eager to tour with Cody’s Wild West show. They sought an opportunity to work with other Indians, away from the relentless tedium and privation of reservation life, and enjoyed earning a wage and the guarantee of three hot meals a day. This portrait of a band of individuals, beleaguered but unbeaten and making choices about their own destinies, counters the one-dimensional sketch of helpless and universal victimization drawn by Mr. Vuillard. On the other hand, Mr. Vuillard’s anger and skepticism are a powerful antidote for Ms. Stillman’s tendency to romanticize the entente between colonizers and those whom they colonized.
—Mr. Graybill is the chair of the history department and co-director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University.
I can't resist juxtaposing these two images -- who says Americans and Russians can't get along?
Here (pixes of American ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin both enjoying [separately] a freezing dip in icy Mother Russia waters marking an important Russian religious celebration ... ) :)
Doubtless more evidence that Americans and Russians can find common ground (hot tubs not necessarily needed) ...
Recognizing the distinct values of each region is critical to understanding the United States, Woodard said.
"The country has been arguing about a lot of fundamental things lately, including state roles and individual liberty," Woodard, a Maine native, told Business Insider in 2015.
"In order to have any productive conversation on these issues, you need to know where you come from," he said. "Once you know where you are coming from, it will help move the conversation forward."
Here is how Woodard described each region of the US:
A village in rural Vermont.Shutterstock
Yankeedom comprises New England, upstate New York, and much of the industrial midwest, from northern Pennsylvania to Minnesota, Woodard wrote in Tufts University's magazine.
Residents in these states, founded by Puritans, are more comfortable with government regulation than people in other regions. They also value education, citizen participation in government, and the assimilation of outsiders, Woodard said.
The Statue of Liberty and the skyline of New York city.Getty Images
New Netherland is Woodard's name for the greater New York City area — encompassing the city itself as well as northern New Jersey and part of Connecticut.
The area was settled by the Dutch and retained many of the values that made the Netherlands a paragon of Western civilization. Today, the region is a hub for global commerce and, as Woodard put it, has "a profound tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity and an unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry and conscience."
The region is "a magnet for immigrants, and a refuge for those persecuted by other regional cultures," he said.
A farmer harvests corn in Burlington, Iowa.Scott Olson/Getty Images
The Midlands are "America's great swing region," Woodard wrote, citing the region's ethnic diversity and politically moderate views.
According to Woodard, the region extends from Quaker territory in Pennsylvania and Delaware through populated Midwestern areas in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, down through the Plains states of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas, and stretching out to include parts of Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and New Mexico. It includes some of what we consider the American Heartland and Middle America.
Midlands society is "pluralistic and organized around the middle class," Woodard wrote. People here reject government intrusion.
Downtown Annapolis, Maryland.Shutterstock
The Tidewater region includes coastal areas of colonial states such as Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina.
The region began as a feudal society that embraced slavery, and to this day values respect for authority and tradition. Equality and public participation in politics are less of a priority.
Woodard wrote that the region is in decline in part because of the "expanding federal halos around DC and Norfolk."
A coal miner in Beallsville, Ohio.Getty/Justin Sullivan
Greater Appalachia comprises the area from southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia, down through the lower Midwest, down through Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and into Oklahoma and Texas.
Woodard describes the Greater Appalachian culture as "characterized by a warrior ethic and a commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty."
The region has shifted alliances, siding with the Union during the Civil War, but currently aligning with Southern states in their opposition to federal overreach. People from this region are generally "intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers alike."
Downtown Charleston, South Carolina.Shutterstock
The Deep South traces its roots to slave societies in the West Indies, where democracy was reserved for the privileged and many were resigned to a life of servitude, Woodard wrote.
People in the Deep South tend to fight against the expansion of federal powers, taxes on the wealthy, and corporate and environmental regulations.
On Woodard's map, the Deep South spans from rural North Carolina, through South Carolina, Georgia, northern Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, northern Louisiana, and eastern Texas.
A local jazz band performs in front of Jackson Square in the New Orleans French Quarter.Shutterstock
The New Orleans area, a progressive hub nestled in the Deep South, makes up what Woodard calls New France, as does the Canadian province of Quebec.
"After a long history of imperial oppression, its people have emerged as down-to-earth, egalitarian, and consensus driven, among the most liberal on the continent, with unusually tolerant attitudes toward gays and people of all races and a ready acceptance of government involvement in the economy" Woodard wrote of New France.
People in this multicultural region tend to be comfortable with government involvement in the economy, he said.
Houses in Mesa, Arizona.Wikimedia Commons
El Norte, comprising southwestern Texas and the Mexican border regions in New Mexico, Arizona, and California, is "a place apart" from the rest of North America, Woodard wrote.
Thanks to its roots in the Spanish Empire, Hispanic culture dominates in El Norte, and people here "have a reputation for being exceptionally independent, self-sufficient, adaptable, and focused on work."
Woodward called the region "a hotbed of democratic reform."
The Far West
The Rocky Mountains in Colorado.Shutterstock
Comprising the Great Plains and the Mountain West, Woodard's Far West region "occupies the one part of the continent shaped more by environmental factors than ethnographic ones."
Settlement in the Far West was directed by big-city corporations with railroads and mining equipment, leaving people here "resentful of their dependent status," Woodard said. Today, Far Westerners direct their ire at the federal government.
The Far West includes land in the western Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and the eastern halves of Washington, Oregon, and California. It also includes Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska.
The Left Coast is the sliver of land that runs up the Pacific coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington, and also includes Juneau, Alaska, and coastal British Columbia.
The region was settled by both New Englanders and Appalachian midwesterners, and as a result, "Left Coast culture is a hybrid of Yankee utopianism and Appalachian self-expression and exploration," Woodard wrote.
The Left Coast is a staunch ally of Yankeedom, and people here often clash with people from the interior portions of their home states.
An Inuit woman in Alaska.Travel Alaska
The largest but least populated of Woodard's nations is First Nation — the region comprising native groups that never gave up their land to white settlers. They mostly reside in harsh Arctic areas in Alaska and northern Canada.
People from these groups "have largely retained cultural practices and knowledge that allow them to survive in this hostile region on their own terms," Woodard said.
This is an updated version of an article by Matthew Speiser.
Books on proper English do strangely well – perhaps because those who buy books are those who mind about apostrophes. Such volumes are
supposed to improve your prose. But the true appeal seems to lie in a
tasty kind of misanthropy: the reader gets to froth over dimwits who say
things like, “She literally disappeared off the face of the earth”. But the
language scold always loses in the end. Those kids who, thirty years ago, irked adults by saying “like” all the time are today saying “like” at board meetings, on national broadcasts, and to their own teenagers.
Whether ours is a time of butchered English or of flourishing invention isn’t obvious. Does online writing strip English of pomposity and
outmoded rules? When Emmy J. Favilla turned up for her job interview at
BuzzFeed five years ago, the media company already enjoyed notoriety as the leading trawler of click-bait, filling its webpages with enticing posts
such as “Cat Enjoys Being Vacuumed”. The site had millions of views a
day, and not a single copy editor. At first, BuzzFeed had been a mere side
project for Jonah Peretti, one of the creators of the Huf ington Post. His
passion was to understand how ideas and information spread online, and
this enterprise was his lab to track viral content. But he was onto
something bigger than that. Financing poured in, humans were hired to
oversee the algorithms, and he finally left the Huf ington Post in 2011 to
dedicate himself to the listicle capital of the world.
Peretti had discerned that social media were becoming a dominant
reading source. He plotted the BuzzFeed expansion accordingly. “A big
part of that is scoops and exclusives and original content,” he told the
New York Times in 2012, “and it’s also about cute kittens in an
entertaining cultural context.” Peretti employed a much-respected
newshound, Ben Smith of Politico, as BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief, and
more appointments followed, including that of its first copy editor,
Favilla. Almost at once, she had decisions to make, beginning with how you abbreviate “macaroni and cheese”. Her ruling: “mac ’n’ cheese”,
which she deemed cuter than “mac & cheese”. With that, she was off. In a
mere two months, Favilla had drafted an entire style guide, thousands of
words on preferred spellings and the like. When BuzzFeed posted a
version online in 2014, old-school media sources treated the occasion as a
milestone: the internet was growing up. Or, at least, someone could
finally pronounce on whether you should say “de-friend” or “unfriend”
(it’s the latter). All the attention surprised Favilla, and prompted her
manifesto, A World Without “Whom”: The essential guide to language in the BuzzFeed age.
As if to immunize herself against criticism, she begins by announcing her
paucity of qualifications; she is neither a lexicographer nor an expert in
linguistics. Previously, she worked at Teen Vogue. “I am constantly
looking up words for fear of using them incorrectly and everyone in my
office and my life discovering that I am a fraud”, she says. But despite the tone of chirpy self-satire, what follows is a small revolution. “Today everyone is a writer – a bad, unedited, unapologetic writer”, she says.
“There’s no hiding our collective incompetence anymore.” Unlike the
language scolds of yore, Favilla embraces the new ways, punctuating her
writing with emoji, inserting screen-grabs of instant messages, using
texting shortcuts such as “amirite?” Hers is a rule book with fewer rules
than orders to ignore them. Humans are gushing out words at such a pace,
they can’t be expected to bother with grammar, she says. More important is to be entertaining, on trend, popular (neatly matching the corporate
goals of BuzzFeed). “It’s often more personal and more plain-languagey,
and so it resonates immediately and more widely.”
Many of her judgements will chill traditionalists. She delights in the use
of “literally” to mean its opposite. As her book title declares, she’d
abolish “whom”, given how few people use it correctly. Other matters that have long rattled copy-editors don’t concern her: variations in spelling, comma precision, full stops in acronyms. Often, when pondering a style ruling, she offers no firm guidance, as if mistrusting authority to such a degree that she can’t grant it even to herself, the author of “the essential guide to language”.
“Use your judgment, friends”, she says. And: “Don’t sweat it too much”.
And: “In the end, who cares?” Her chapter “Getting Things as Right as You Can: The stuff that kinda-sorta matters” features an instant-message exchange in which she corrects a BuzzFeed colleague on a style point. When questioned, Favilla lifts the rule, then admits to being drunk – “so whatever”. In this merry free-for-all, her scorn is reserved for those who
scorn. A person who resists current usage is “stodgy and miserable and
irrelevant”, prefers “a stagnant, miserable world”, and will be “sitting
motionless in a puddle of his own tears”. She claims to want only to describe language, not prescribe its correct use. But her preference is
clear, to raze what she deems pedantic and elevate the verbal etiquette of
millennials. At times, she sounds like an activist: “We’ve come a long
way, but we’ve still got some work left to do”.
Immersion in memes makes Favilla a handy guide for the perplexed – by
which I mean people old enough to remember the twentieth century.
However, she seems unsure where to pitch her book, leery of appearing
uncool to her peers but needing to address those miserable geriatrics who
somehow missed out on “cash me ousside, howbow dah”. (This line was
spoken by a thirteen-year-old girl on the daytime television talk show Dr.
Phil as a threat to a derisive studio audience: “Catch me outside – how
about that?” A clip of her saying those words became a viral hit, watched
more than 100 million times on YouTube. The girl, Danielle Bregoli, is
now a celebrity.) Another meme Favilla explains for the web-blind is
“Doge-speak”; a photo of a dog is superimposed onto other illustrations,
then overlaid with phrases in broken English, as if to reflect the inane
thoughts of the animal. In one, the dog appears at the Last Supper,
thinking, “Such delicious” and “wow”.
BuzzFeed and its rivals dine on this sort of material, which is intended to
be silly, often ironically. Fixing grammar in slapstick would be absurd, so Favilla’s practical rule for editing is this: “I ask myself, How would I write this in an email to a friend, or in a Facebook status?” What Favilla circles around is a striking proposal: eliminate formal English. If professional writing should read like an online message, and messaging is akin to conversation, there’s only one register. “Repeat after me”, she commands. “If we speak that way, it’s okay to write that way.”
But how to write sarcasm? Social-messaging fever has exposed a
weakness in English. We can write facts and transcribe speech. But to
convey the subtle emotions of talking – this is vexingly hard. The
avalanche of online exchanges amounts to a crowd laboratory, where
hundreds of millions seek to get their meaning across to prospective
dates, business contacts, gaming rivals. A few of the tweaks – “idk” (I don’t know) or “fwiw” (for what it’s worth) – are shortcuts for weary digits. But other abbreviations – “jk” (just kidding) or “lmfao” (laughing my fucking ass off) – emote where the writing hasn’t. Punctuation too is transformed, no longer there just to organize sentences. A full stop is redundant in texting, so the concluding full stop online becomes a drillhole of hostility. Alternatively, full stops mimic emphatic oration: “You. Are. Insane”.
New punctuation has arisen, such as a tilde on either side of a phrase to
saturate the bracketed remark in irony. Also, messages regularly include
GIFs to elaborate on the writing, so that someone might message,
“omg!!!” and insert a looped video of a cute child slapping his cheeks in
amazement. If you can’t find a fitting GIF, you may insert an asterisk on
either side of a phrase to evoke a video clip, as Favilla does in the book,
approving of one dictionary’s ruling with the line “*twirls out of the room
and into a party full of double-duty words wearing a skirt made of
shredded dictionary pages*”. But her favourite new tool is the emoji, which she calls “the most evolved form of punctuation we have at our disposal”. “I mean, what a time to be alive, seriously”, she writes.
Favilla turns grave only when considering offensive speech. “Language
has the impressive ability to craft social construct, and if the result is
negative, then we learn and we listen and we phrase things better the next
time.” She opposes the term “sex change operation” in favour of “gender affirmation surgery”. She mentions her copydesk’s attempt to find “a nongendered term for pads, tampons, and menstrual cups”. She endorses the gender-neutral pronouns “ze”, “zir”, “hir”, “xe”, “xem” and “xyrs”. She also frets – sincerely, I think – about not stereotyping dogs, calling this a “crucial matter to address”.
Yes, these are the kind of worries that delight right-wing firebrands. In her
defence, what can seem like trendy quibbling may be a drive for accuracy.
And to stand at the vanguard of language change always earns you
contempt. It is when revolt sounds like adolescent rebellion that Favilla
harms her case; she tells the reader, “Don’t be a hater just because you’re
old and uncool”.
Whereas Favilla is a digital native resolutely of the twenty-first century,
eighty-nine-year-old Harold Evans is an inky newspaperman of the
twentieth, growling in the on-deadline voice of a chap accustomed to
being in charge. Even the title of his book on writing, Do I Make Myself
Clear?, has an irascible twang.
Favilla seeks to deflect criticism with self-deprecation, but Evans has no
such compunction. He is a man with accomplishments to be proud of, and
he is proud of them. “A fair question – I am glad you asked – is what do I
bring to the picnic? The short answer is that I have spent my life editing
thousands of writers, from the urgent files of reporters on the front lines
to the complex thought processes of Henry Kissinger in his memoirs and
history of China.” Evans was reporting at sixteen. He wrote a journalism
manual forty years ago. He remembers typewriters and hot lead, back
when there was “no meandering in cyberspace”. When Favilla was in
diapers, Evans was Editor of The Times. “It was the pinnacle of the
profession”, he says modestly.
Evans too has a case to make about language in the Digital Age, one far
less jubilant. Ghastly writing is the reason people assert more today and
reason less, he contends, citing muddled wording among the causes of
terrorism, the financial crisis and the struggles of Obamacare. Climatechange
deniers, he points out, conceal lobbying organizations with
misleading titles. Meanwhile, the social media beloved by Favilla have
helped to propagate fake news.
Regrettably, Evans fails to delve much deeper into the problem than by
sniffing out excessive word counts and clichés – hardly a satisfying
explanation for what ails the common tongue. He doesn’t help himself
with cursory attempts to sound tech-savvy. Overwhelmingly, his sources
are the legacy media: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the
Washington Post, the Associated Press, ABC News, CNN. Sometimes he
comes off as a snorty oldster of the kind Favilla derides, as when he
digresses about his gratitude “when finally I track down someone who
sorts out the problems with Apple’s obsession with passwords”.
Evans may err in his prescription, but is correct to diagnose trouble.
Public opinion is frighteningly confused today, with many citizens
opposing what they support. They’re for health care, but against the
policy providing it. Bewilderment also warps discussion of gun control
and Brexit and global warming, leaving those without scruples to spin,
while earnest news sources mount their factual cases – and are snubbed.
Manipulative language has been around as long as public debate. But
today’s lies linger because the internet has scuttled credibility, placing
heaps of alluring junk beside small piles of dry honesty.
BuzzFeed, to its credit, has invested in serious journalism. The company’s
growth during Favilla’s time has been staggering. She recalls about 150
people on the payroll when she started in 2012. Today, it boasts 1,500
employees in eighteen offices from New York and Sydney to London and
Mumbai, with an entertainment studio in Los Angeles. (BuzzFeed
recently announced a round of layoffs, after reportedly missing its
revenue target for the year. Still, the company brought in more than $250
million in 2017, according to the Wall Street Journal.) Around the time of
her arrival, BuzzFeed generated 100 million views a month; three years
later, it was 5 billion. Amid this boom, the Editor-in-Chief, Ben Smith,
expanded news coverage, built a team of dogged reporters, conducted an
exclusive interview with President Obama in 2015. He gained attention –
and disdain in some quarters – for posting a dossier of salacious,
unverified claims about President Trump. His staff were also producing
undeniable scoops, such as a piece revealing that United States funding to
Afghanistan had been diverted to schools “that have never seen a single
In the meantime, one of BuzzFeed’s most successful ventures was the
live-streaming of two employees placing rubberbands around a
watermelon until it exploded. At one point, 800,000 people were
watching that live on Facebook. Comments from the public included,
“what am i doing with my life”.
I can’t refute Favilla’s fundamental claim. Her populist, who-cares
approach probably will prevail, and only a fool would play the scold.
After all, outrage is just the feeling of losing control, right? Yet there is something dispiriting about A World Without ‘Whom’. Her credo of triumphal sloppiness retains so little of what is inspiring about writing: precision, brilliance of intent. She cites George Orwell’s unmatched essay on writing, “Politics and the English Language”, yet applies little from it.
Instead, she chokes out sentences such as: “So, sure, the ration of
prescriptivism-leaning to descriptivism-leaning molecules just hanging
out in your DNA, waiting to pounce like a lion stalking its prey on the
writer who asks if languagey is a ‘real’ word, fluctuates across the human
population as much as our propensity for doing household chores does”.
Goofball giggles are a treat, but not the summit of language – and
language remains our best vessel for complex ideas. Failure to master our
tongues, to allow others to direct them hither and thither – that is what
Orwell was warning against.
Consider the catchphrases that ooze with cynicism and passivity – “It is what it is” or “Whatever” or “You do you”. Or “Haters gonna hate”, which means nothing much except that, if someone opposes your view, you should write them off. Don’t argue, simply shut them out, hold to your comfy in-group, close your eyes, plug your ears, and hum loudly till they’ve left. But first, take a peep at your news feed. There’s another meme waiting. And it. Is. Hilarious.
Ross Douthat JAN. 17, 2018, New York Times
(Original article contains links.)
Image from article, with caption: A demonstrator at the Women's March in Washington last year
Suppose that you were asked to assess the state of American society under Donald Trump, the essence of our problems and divisions[JB emphasis], without any access to the
president’s own words or the media coverage thereof. Suppose, instead, that you had
to cobble together your assessment based only on the way the electorate and the
culture has responded to his ascent and presidency — by looking at the changes
wrought in our partisan landscape, the new sociological and political fissures that
have opened, and the protests and mass movements, social trends and cultural
expressions have defined his strange first year in office.
I suspect this exercise might lead to the conclusion that both race and class, the
two tangled areas that so many commentators — myself included — have written
about endlessly for the last two years, are less important to our moment than the
scale of the media attention paid to them suggests, and that divisions and anxieties around sex and gender are where the essential cultural action of the Trump era really lies.
This possibility seems like a deliberate provocation in a week when Trump’s
outburst about countries that resemble outhouses has made the president’s racism a
headline topic for the umpteenth time. And I’m not denying the reality of that
racism, which has been apparent since Trump embraced birtherism and which
plainly informs his views on immigration more than the commitment to merit-based
migration policy that his minders and managers have been trying to advance.
But the same week that reminded us of Trump’s bigotry also brought a striking
analysis of how Americans are reacting to his presidency, generated by a large and
deep survey conducted by Survey Monkey and written up for The Atlantic by Ron
Brownstein. To some extent the survey shows what smaller polls have also shown:
Trump’s coalition depends on working-class whites, evangelicals and older white
men; he’s opposed by minorities and women and the young; and he has lost ground
just about everywhere since his election last November.
But the way he’s lost ground is interesting. The press coverage often makes it
seem as if Trump is using racial provocations to hold his white blue-collar base while
assuming the minorities will never vote for him, and indeed I suspect that — to the
extent his provocations have any cunning behind them — he may think about them
in those terms. Yet racial polarization in the electorate hasn’t actually increased over the last year: Relative to where he stood last November, Trump has lost white support, including working-class-white support, while either holding his own or actually gaining ground with blacks and Hispanics.
His lost support has been heavily concentrated among the female of the species:
“From February through December,” writes Brownstein, “Trump’s approval rating
fell more with middle-aged blue-collar white women than any other group.”
Meanwhile among minorities he’s made gains or held his own by appealing primarily
to men, while remaining extraordinarily unpopular with black and Hispanic women.
“In every age group,” Brownstein notes, “and at every level of education, about twice
as many African-American men as women gave Trump positive marks,” and “among
Hispanic men older than 50, Trump’s approval — strikingly — exceeded 40 percent.” Relative to where American politics stood before his rise, Trump’s campaign polarized America more by class and gender than it did by race. And then, by jettisoning much of the populist economic agenda he campaigned on, Trump’s actual presidency has made class less important and gender more essential to understanding how Americans divide.
This doesn’t mean that race isn’t enduringly important to these divisions;the
fact that a minority of minority men seem more blasé about his bigotry than you
might expect does not mean that Trump is actually building a pan-racial coalition. But if you’re looking at what Trump has directly changed, who seems distinctively offended and energized by his provocations, white-brown-black differences aren’t where the action is; instead, it’s with the large female backlash that may be poised to swamp the male backlash that helped make him president.
The last year has offered ample confirmation of this point. The heart of the anti-Trump resistance movement is middle-aged white women, while the Black Lives
Matter movement has receded despite Trump’s own attempts to elevate it via his
campaign against Colin Kaepernick. In terms of the numbers involved, the white
nationalist-antifa collisions have been sideshows compared with the Women’s March
and its various imitators. And in the culture, the clearest Trump-driven convulsion
has been the #MeToo movement, which intersects with race and class but is
fundamentally about the relations between the sexes.
There are various conclusions one could draw from this reality. Someone
focused on building anti-Trump solidarity might argue that one defining effect of
Trump’s rise has been to make more white women feel the sense of marginalization
and disempowerment that minorities already feel — which is why the female
reaction is so much more notable than the reaction among groups more inured to
Alternatively, someone focused on the primacy of race might complain that
white women have effectively hijacked anti-Trumpism, using their positions of
influence in the media and elsewhere to turn what should be a “Get Out!” moment
into a “Handmaid’s Tale” moment, depriving Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights
groups and other like-minded movements of media oxygen in order to focus on their
own more intimate sufferings at the hands of Trump-like elite men.
My own suggestion would be that the surprising gender-over-race dynamic might also reflect some underappreciated social shifts that could modestly depolarize racial issues even as the war over the sexes gets a little worse.
In particular, on two of the issues that drove racial polarization in the late
Obama years — the justice system’s seeming racial bias, which spurred so much
minority activism, and elite support for ever-increasing immigration, which spurred
populist backlash on the right — the underlying numbers have actually been moving
in the direction desired by both sides’ activists.
Mass incarceration isn’t just in retreat (with prison populations falling 13
percent from their 2007-08 peak), it’s retreated in a very race-specific way:
Imprisonment rates for black men plunged by 24 percent in 2000s even as the white
imprisonment rate slightly rose. Meanwhile, the immigration rate, legal and illegal,
has also fallen quite dramatically since 2005. Neither issue is about to disappear, but
it’s still notable that trends feeding black disillusionment and white-identity politics
were improving in the years leading up to Trump … even as trends related to sex, marriage and family continued to show a growing social divide between the sexes,with fewer marriages, fewer children and less sex all around. If “less sex”
just means “less for Harvey Weinstein,” of course, that’s good news for
everyone else. But what’s being exposed in the Trump era is more than just
a few pigs and their crimes. Something is badly out of joint with male-female relations, our ability to woo and be wooed, our capacity to successfully and happily pair off.
It may be too much to hope that recent racial polarization has been driven by
trends that are destined to improve. (We don’t know, for instance, what’s happening
with the crime rate after the late-Obama-era spike.) But at the very least our race
problems might not, the presidency’s bigotry notwithstanding, be necessarily getting
worse. Even Trump’s recent “what, me, racist?” tweet noting an all-time-low in the
black unemployment rate was not wrong: These are the best economic times for
African-Americans in a decade.
But there is strong evidence that our problems with sex and gender and male-female relations are worsening — which is why it’s understandable that they’re at the heart of how the country has reacted to the Trump presidency, and fitting that this year of public protests and intimate revelations have thrown them into sharp relief.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he still shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."