The Grotesque American Wedding

(ASphotowed/iStock/Getty Images Plus)Why borrow money for a horror show?

Welcome to The Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about politics, culture, language, pedantry, shenanigans, and sins both mortal and venal.

Listen to Jackie

“One hundred Irish politicians!” Janet Auchincloss’s daughter, Jackie, was set to marry John Kennedy, which meant her daughter was set to marry the Kennedy family’s social ambitions.

“The wedding will be just awful — quite dreadful,” Mrs. Auchincloss lamented. Jackie had wanted a small, intimate wedding, but Joseph Kennedy wanted to reinvent his grubby little clan as the American royal family. He got his way. He usually did.

They should have listened to Jackie.

American weddings are often grotesque affairs, a weird mix of lacy white princess dresses and neck tattoos, Pachelbel and Bon Jovi. They weren’t always such spectacles. Here are the Eisenhowers on their wedding day. If there are 16 young women with matching dresses of lavender taffeta, they are out of the frame. Here are the Hemingways, Papa’s unhappy first time around. Pretty low-key. I think it is unlikely that the future Mrs. Hemingway wore a plastic tiara and drank 18 cosmopolitans the night before.

(The groom might have.)

For many years, people typically got married at home, or in the home of a family member, in front of a small group of people. The only common alternative was a church. Even very fancy people with more elaborate weddings usually got married at home: When young Franklin Roosevelt married Eleanor, the bride was given away by her uncle, the president of the United States of America. The Roosevelts were, as Joe Biden might have put it, a BFD. They got married at the house of the bride’s grandmother (a pretty nice house) and then went on a week’s honeymoon not to Cancun but 88 miles away in Hyde Park, N.Y., where the groom was from. (They later took a three-month European tour.) When John D. Rockefeller’s daughter got married, she got married at the family home. (The particulars are pretty gaudy-sounding.) Calvin and Grace Coolidge were married in front of 15 people in her father’s living room. Coolidge was only 18 years away from the presidency.

The American wedding has been transformed in part by New World middle-class imitation of Old World royalty. White dresses weren’t socially obligatory for anyone except English debutantes being presented to the monarch for the first time; Queen Victoria’s white wedding dress is popularly credited for transforming that piece of court etiquette into what became the modern convention. (For a point of comparison, see Gerald and Betty Ford.) Diamond engagement rings, though not unheard-of, were in many quarters considered excessively showy, but that custom slowly worked its way down from the Archduke Maximilian of Austria to modern middle-class ubiquity.

The desire of the bourgeoisie to ape the titled aristocracy remains even in our own time: When her husband was the prime minister of the United Kingdom, Cherie Blair made a point of wearing a white dress for a meeting with the pope, which as a matter of ancient custom was a privilege reserved to Catholic monarchs. The Blairs wanted to be the Kennedys, and the Kennedys wanted to be the Mountbatten-Windsors. It is notable that Donald Trump is fascinated by a title of nobility, which he gave both to his imaginary friend/press agent and to his youngest son: John Barron (sometimes “John Baron”) and Barron Trump. The Trumps’ efforts to link their own family to the British royals is the stuff of a thousand cringes. There were not a hundred Irish politicians at Trump’s most recent wedding, though Billy Joel and the Clintons were in attendance.

It probably is not coincidence that Americans got very serious about the spectacle of the wedding right around the same time they began giving up on the idea of marriage. “Until death do us part” is tough, but a “big day” we can still manage. All you need is bad taste and money.

This brings me to the actual subject of today’s letter, which is, of course, debt.

Last week, Slate published a particularly insipid piece of sympathy journalism (it is part of a series) under the headline: “What It’s Like to Have $163,718 of Student Debt When You’re Living Paycheck to Paycheck: The story of Arthur Stallworth, age 36, from Silver Spring, Maryland.” Sympathy is a barrier to good journalism because it prevents the asking of necessary questions. (“Empathy,” which our politicians like to talk about, is not an emotion at all but a literary conceit.) For example: Mr. Stallworth reports a household income of $125,000 a year, which is not too bad for a man with an “online doctorate of education and interdisciplinary leadership.” There are lawyers and architects who do worse. (The report is silent about how much of the couple’s income comes from Mr. Stallworth and how much comes from his wife.) In spite of that income, he says he “couldn’t afford it” when his loan repayments rose . . . from $200 a month to $400 a month. Really? His household income is twice the national average; how is it that he is getting wiped out by a $200-a-month increase in a longstanding bill? The headline promises to tell us “what it’s like” to be in that guy’s shoes, so curiosity is assumed. What’s the deal?

Likewise: Mr. Stallworth reports that his student debt was $100,000 when he got his doctorate five years ago, but today it is $163,718.20. That implies an interest rate in excess of 10 percent a year, but student-loan interest rates are generally a lot less than that. (Federal loans currently are at 0.00 percent because of the epidemic, but the rates run from 2.75 percent for undergraduate borrowers to 5.30 percent for unsubsidized graduate-student loans.) There’s probably a good explanation for how that happened, but that explanation isn’t in Rachelle Hampton’s story, which is supposed to be a story about debt but remains willfully vague on the financial details.

What is in the story, instead, are observations such as this one: “Halfway through, I reached the point where I was really, really done with Nebraska. I was always in PWIs [predominantly white institutions]. At first you don’t really recognize that stuff, but then people say things like, ‘You don’t have any hair.’ No, I have a fade. But they don’t know what a fade is.”

I am not entirely surprised that some predominantly white people in Nebraska do not have a satisfactory vocabulary for discussing tonsorial matters with African-American colleagues. It is not clear what that has to do with Mr. Stallworth’s personal debt situation. And that situation is extraordinary considering he got a “full ride” for his undergraduate degree, with a scholarship that covered both tuition and room and board. How does this actually happen?

And, then, the kicker: “I had to take out a loan from my retirement in order to pay for our wedding.”

At which point, I found myself saying out loud: “Well, no. No, you didn’t.”

You didn’t have to. It wasn’t obligatory. You could have gone to city hall in the morning and taken your friends and family out to a nice lunch afterward. (You know what they would have done? They would have thanked you. Most weddings are dreadful.) People do it all the time. Here, what he needed was a visit from Bob Newhart in therapist mode: “Don’t do that.”

Mr. Stallworth is hardly alone in his assumptions about what simply must be done. There is a great deal to dig into there, but, for the moment, I will conclude with this: The belief that you simply must have a burdensomely expensive dog-and-pony show to get married and the belief that you simply must have a “doctorate of education and interdisciplinary leadership” to lead an educational institution — and that both of these must be had even at the cost of assuming ruinous debt — are, at the foundation, the same belief, rooted in the same error.

A society unmoored from genuine values will embrace meretricious ones, just as a society disconnected from divinity will always find something to worship — what do you think is really going on in our ridiculous modern weddings?

Words About Words

From the Via Salaria to Salzberg, from Northwich to Dandi, the politics of salt has been a force in human affairs from the beginning. Like many other once-precious commodities, salt today is so cheap that it is literally given away. In spite of the legend, it is not true that salt used to be worth more per ounce than gold, but it was valuable enough to be used as a medium of exchange, which it was in China (according to Marco Polo’s reports), and in parts of Ethiopia into the 20th century.

In the late 15th century, Italy was convulsed by the “Guerra de Sale,” in which the Duke of Ferrara duked it out with the pope’s army and the Venetians. (I still kind of like the idea of a papal army.) The Venetians were gripped by blind rage when Ferrara bit into Venice’s negotiated monopoly on salt production. The salty merchants of Venice were not to be denied. Tacitus reports a first-century battle over control of a salt-producing river at modern Germany’s Bad Salzungen.

It is not the case that Roman soldiers were paid in salt. (I am sure I have repeated that legend as fact, and repent of it. There is nothing more embarrassing than arrant pedantry that turns out to be errant pedantry.) The modern word salary is derived from the Latin salarium, meaning “stipend,” which is related to the Latin word salarius, meaning “pertaining to salt.” But the connection between the words is lost to us, and there is no evidence that Roman soldiers were ever paid in salt or that the salarium was, as another theory holds, an allowance for salt. As the classicist Peter Gainsford concludes after a very interesting discussion, the notion of Roman soldiers being paid in salt is “pure fantasy.” Gainsford (the author of Early Greek Hexameter Poetry) writes that this story begins with conjecture among Latin dictionary-writers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

No ancient source ever actually uses salarium to mean ‘salt allowance’. It’s a guess. It isn’t a terrible guess, but it’s still a guess.

It may be the case that the soldiers’ salarium was somehow related to Roman salt taxes, but we don’t really know.

And where there are no answers to be found, answers will be invented.

While we are at it, there is no reason to believe that the Roman army plowed salt into the fields after razing Carthage in order to render the land sterile. There is no mention of this in the ancient world, and the Romans wanted Carthage to keep producing grain — it was an important supplier, and the Romans were often worried about food security. There were many salt rituals in the ancient world, and casting salt over something as a curse seems to have been a part of several different traditions. See, for example, Judges 9:45: “All that day Abimelek pressed his attack against the city until he had captured it and killed its people. Then he destroyed the city and scattered salt over it.” Salt is in fact used as a fertilizer and long has been. This is probably what Jesus is referring to in calling His disciples the “salt of the earth,” that, if it loses its distinctiveness, becomes of no use to the soil.

The phrase “worth your salt” is not, as far as anybody knows, of Roman origin, and it does not appear in English until the 19th century.

Rampant Prescriptivism

After last week’s discussion of reflexive pronouns, a reader writes to suggest my sentence, “The president is only hurting himself” would be better written, “The president is hurting only himself.” There is the issue of the idiomatic expression, but I think these two sentences are answers to different questions. Whom is the president hurting? “Only himself.” What is the president doing on Twitter? “Only hurting himself.”

Send your language questions to [email protected] 

Home and Away

One of the reasons cancel culture has started to grab the attention of nice white people with impeccably progressive credentials at elite institutions is the fact that it is no longer being deployed mainly or more energetically against right-wingers but against moderate and occasionally nonconforming people who are not right-wingers, as in the recent purge of first James Bennet and then Bari Weiss from the New York Times opinion section. A conservative columnist can be put in a zoo cage labeled “Conservative,” and the Times opinion pages, which still pretend to be part of a journalistic operation rather than a political one, will grudgingly accept that. But Bari Weiss was an editor, not a columnist, and she was free-range, not quarantined in the conservative ghetto.

Hence her ouster. More in the New York Post.

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. It has something to irritate everyone.

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In Closing

I meant for this to be a newsletter about debt, but it ended up being one about idolatry. I don’t think those troubles are unrelated. The connection is sterility. Think of the golden calf, the linkage between sodomy, blasphemy, and usury in Dante’s Inferno, the lifeless “pound of flesh” in The Merchant of Venice, or Ezra Pound’s “Canto XLV,” informed by Dante, and its account of fruitless usury: “With usura, sin against nature . . . stonecutter is kept from his stone, weaver is kept from his loom.” In case you miss the point, Pound spells it out in emphatic all-caps, as though he were your uncle on Facebook: “Contra Naturam.”

In the Times’ account of the Rockefeller wedding mentioned above, the writer chronicles the “costly and elegant” wedding presents heaped up for display in the reception rooms. I wonder what the father of the bride, who is estimated by some to be in real terms the wealthiest man to have lived in modern times, was trying to demonstrate with that display. The bride died of a stroke at age 40, and the groom retired to a villa outside Florence to write books about “panpsychism.”

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