A message on an electronic display inside a mostly empty 42nd Street subway station in New York City, March 20, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Welcome to “The Tuesday,” where we are old enough to remember those weeks when the evening news began “America Held Hostage! Day 84!” This was when there were a lot of bumper stickers reading, “Kick the Shiite Out of Iran!” We also are old enough to remember when “the evening news” was a going concern.
‘Shane, Come Back!’
The Trump administration has extended its advisory against nonessential travel and social gatherings through the end of April. It would have been irresponsible to do otherwise, though that is hardly the same thing as saying that the Trump administration could not do something else. It is an irresponsible administration. It seems likely, at the moment, that the nation’s regime of self-quarantine through “social isolation” will extend past April. This will impose a terrible price on people — “the economy” is people — and looks likely to fall most heavily on those who are least able to bear the burden.
Meanwhile, we wait it out. Meanwhile, we hide.
One of the terrible things about the current crisis — beyond the obvious death and suffering — is the terrible passivity it imposes. After 9/11, an old friend of mine who had a pretty nice career in the entertainment business stopped everything and joined the Army, not something a lot of people do in their 30s. Our friend David French was a Harvard-trained lawyer pushing 40 when he was deployed to Iraq. The U.S. military is more discriminating than it once was, because modern American war-making requires more technical knowledge and complex coordination than it once did, but you do not have to have an Ivy League degree to join the Army. It is something an ordinary young man, or many ordinary young men, can do. And that was even more the case during the great national crises of the 20th century, when ordinary young men not only had the opportunity to go and fight but were expected to do so — and, in some cases, compelled to do so. There was a role for the ordinary man to play in the great drama of the time. An ordinary man could be a hero.
I am grateful not only to the medical professionals who are putting themselves at great personal risk in this crisis (nurses are dying in New York City already, and others are sure to follow) but also to the people who are stocking grocery-store shelves, driving trucks, making deliveries, and doing other ordinary work in extraordinary circumstances. (Complain all you like about “gouging,” I hope they are just ratcheting up their wages relentlessly. Markets work!) Honest work is respectable, in good times and in bad times, and our national tendency to sneer at any job that does not require an advanced degree or a mass-marketable talent in sports or entertainment is one of the worst aspects of contemporary American life. But, that being said, telling a man that the best thing he can do in this global crisis is lock himself up at home with a month’s supply of Hot Pockets and binge Netflix — or, if he wants to really live on the edge, sign up to deliver Amazon packages — is uninspiring.
Meanwhile, we wait it out. Meanwhile, we hide.
One of the great social problems of our time, related to the abovementioned sneering at old-fashioned work, is the social inutility of men — or, more precisely that of traditional masculine virtues. In Anno Domini 2020, the returns on technical knowledge are very high, as are the returns on certain kinds of social skills (organizational management) and (ahem!) a certain kind of verbal cleverness. But we have a lot less use for capacities such as physical strength and physical courage, endurance, the capacity for violence, and the many kinds of much more literal self-sacrifice that were absolutely necessary when the world was less connected and more dangerous. We have known this for a while: There is a reason beyond Loyal Griggs’s cinematography that Shane was a hit in 1953, when the nation was looking away from the battlefield and toward the boardroom for its sense of direction: The wounded gunfighter has to go riding off into the sunset — he is far too dangerous to keep around the homestead.
This is a great time to be Odysseus, and not a very good time to be Ajax. But relatively few men have the capacity, or any great desire, to be slick. My own guess is that about 99 and 44/100 percent of the Right’s illiberal neo-nationalism and the Left’s bearded shop-apron hipsterism is a reaction to this, a manifestation of the desire of men to obtain status through traditionally masculine means. The smart guys are selling these guys expensive straight razors and dietary supplements — which you can probably do pretty easily during an extended bout of social isolation.
Meanwhile, we wait it out. Meanwhile, we hide.
Words About Words
“Regime” is not a dirty word. Consider this from Slate: “‘The Wuhan model’ was definitely successful on one front: The extremely harsh containment measures that punished those who broke them worked in limiting spread, and now infections are on the decline in China. But China is a regime. Here, we focus on our own civic sense. Are Italians, French, Europeans, or Americans ready to show how strong their civic sense is, when it means giving up their personal freedoms?” (The author, Greta Privitera, is an Italian journalist.) “Regime” often is used to describe an authoritarian system, but it simply means a way of doing things, a program, the rules under which an activity or a process takes place. It is functionally similar in many uses to the word from which it is derived, “regimen,” the Latin word for “rule” that English borrows. Like the English “regimen,” “regime” also has connotations specific to health and fitness: “an exercise regimen” or “an exercise regime.” In political writing, “regime” often is used to describe a legal or regulatory settlement, especially one that is or may be contested: “Abortion regulation under the Roe regime,” “the deficiencies of the ACA regime,” etc. “Regime” in this sense need not be understood as necessarily pejorative, though one suspects that the odor of authoritarianism (and hence of illegitimacy) that has attached to the word makes it attractive to some writers for that purpose.
“Turbo” also is not a dirty word. “Turbo” is an excellent word, a lovely word, a word worth hearing, especially when it describes the right kind of automobile. A “turbocharger” is a device that enhances the power of an internal-combustion engine by forcing more air into the combustion chamber. (Fire needs oxygen.) It was natural for “turbocharged” to take on a metaphorical meaning, e.g. “the tax cuts were intended to turbocharge the economy.” (Intended to.) A grumpy man may be overheard to address an overexcited person: “Settle down, Turbo.” Etc. But English has a funny way of coming full circle, and now “turbo” is once again being used to describe cars that are extra-fast but, in a modern twist, cars that are not actually turbocharged at all: Porsche, to take the most prominent example, has decided to call its flagship electric vehicle the Taycan Turbo. The Taycan Turbo is not turbocharged — it cannot be turbocharged, in fact, because its electric motor involves no combustion and hence no intake of air. (I suppose it would be more accurate to say that with an electric motor, the combustion is outsourced to the power plant that produces the electricity used to charge the car battery; that fashionably green electric EV may in fact be coal-powered. Batteries don’t charge themselves.) And so in this usage “turbo” simply means “fast” or “faster.” I cannot say that I approve, but the branding departments of automobile companies are full of adjective-happy howler monkeys — remember when any car with fake-leather seats and power windows was described as the “executive” version?
The word that refers to the things that are unique to men or unique to women is “sex.” The word “gender” is a grammatical term (related to the word “genre”) that describes the classification of nouns in certain languages. And long before the choose-you-own-adventure approach to sex in our time, those famously progressive ancient Romans recognized three genders — not that they thought these grammatical conventions had anything to do with sex in the real world. Unlike modern Americans, who wet their pants with guilt and shame if they absent-mindedly refer to the head of the English department as its “chairman,” the Romans were perfectly able to comprehend, e.g., that the words for certain professions typically held by men had feminine endings: agricola (farmer), poeta (poet), nauta (sailor), etc. Nobody thought that men were subtly excluded from the agricultural occupations because the word for “farmer” was agricola instead of agricolus. (The stereotypical sexual plasticity of sailors, referenced by Winston Churchill when he dismissed naval tradition as nothing more than “rum, sodomy, and the lash,” is a subject for another time.) The abuses of English in the service of feminist sensibilities are well-known: “chairman” to “chairwoman” to “chair,” but, strangely enough, not “cowboy” to “cowgirl” to “cow.” What should be appreciated here is that the elevation of “gender” over “sex” — the elevation of the interpretative and metaphorical over the physical and literal — is an ideological project, one that should be resisted.
Home and Away
Some of you may have heard of this Jonah Goldberg fellow, who has a podcast. You can listen to my conversation with him on that podcast here. Generally, the lack of video on these audio podcasts is all upside, but, in this case, you don’t get to see my dachshund.
In National Review, I argue that the coronavirus epidemic is the first global crisis of the post-American era. The world is going to miss American leadership, I think. I am not sure if Americans will miss it as much.
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CNN’s Michael Smerconish and I have been a little bit acquainted for a long time. I was a suburban newspaper editor in Philadelphia when he was getting started in talk radio there, and I always have loved the story he told about convincing his children, very young at the time, that if they saw a billboard or a bus advertisement with his face on it (these were ubiquitous in Philadelphia for a time), then that meant that he could see them, too. That is precisely the kind of terrorism out of which Grade A fatherhood is made, right up there with an irritated Henry Jones Sr. demanding that an excited young Indiana count to ten — in Greek — before interrupting him in his study.
Smerconish’s insight into the infantile mind still serves him well: On March 18, he predicted on Twitter that Donald Trump would seek to put his own signature on any stimulus checks that were sent out to Americans as part of the coronavirus-emergency stimulus. On March 27, the Wall Street Journal reported that President Trump desires to do exactly that:
Mr. Trump has told people he wants his signature to appear on the direct payment checks that will go out to many Americans in the coming weeks, according to an administration official. The White House didn’t comment. Normally, a civil servant — the disbursing officer for the payment center — would sign federal checks, said Don Hammond, a former senior Treasury Department official.
There is an epidemic under way. Hundreds of thousands of people already are sick, and the number is likely to reach into the tens of millions before this is over. Thousands of Americans already have died, with many more sure to follow. There are shortages of everything from medical masks to ventilators, the U.S. government’s response has been a series of bungles (negotiations with GM have been a tragedy of errors, a typical one), and President Donald J. Trump, occupant of the highest office in the land and the most powerful political figure in the world, is thinking about how he might use this for petty personal aggrandizement.
Are the media unfair to President Trump? At times, yes. Are the Democrats awful? Of course. But it is not the media or the Democrats forcing President Trump to conduct himself in this clownish fashion. He behaves like a clown because he is a clown-souled man. The Right’s excuse-making (and its positive celebration) of this clownishness is well beyond what political necessity requires or decency allows. It is shameful, and it will come with a price in the end.
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