Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

For more than 30 years, Will writes, Alabama has been trying to execute a man, now 68, for a murder he committed when he had begun sinking into derangement that now is so complete that he has no recollection of the crime, and Will argues that the execution of an elderly demented invalid has little value as deterrence. Alabama has shown, Will says, “tenacity that deserves a better cause.” This week, Alabama will come to the Supreme Court and seek approval to execute a blind incontinent 68-year-old in a wheelchair whose memory is destroyed by dementia. The thought of it, to paraphrase Will, induces a “healthy squeamishness that speaks well of us.”

The column is brilliant in every detail, passionate, elegant, and leaves the reader feeling better about the country we live in — in other words, is everything the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing was not.

Mr. Will has a starchiness I admire, an ear for exactitude, and a fine sense of balance that enables him to produce long complex sentences that are so rare in journalism thanks to editors and J-school teachers who tried mightily to stamp them out but here he is, building a long pier that extends out through the glop and gloom with a green light at the end going blink blink blink blink to warn incoming schooners to be ever more alert as the destination slides into view.

George Will feels like an older brother to me, whose role is to speak freely and challenge the thinking of his siblings when they adventure into treacherous waters. If I got drunk and punched a stranger in the snoot, George would urge me to find him and apologize and he wouldn’t rest until I did. My older brother Philip would do the same. He died almost ten years ago and so has become younger than I, which is very odd. He held some liberal views but was a conservative at heart, being a believer in familial ties, stability, excellent schools, telling stories especially ones at your own expense, and mankind’s stewardship of this fragile planet we are borrowing from our grandchildren. When you met Philip, you met someone looking for common ground. He was the one who held our family together and without him, we’re like strangers in an elevator, looking up at the lighted numerals.

I have little experience at being a uniter. I grew up among separatist Christians and avoided team sports and aimed to be a writer, an obscure genius mysterious to all but a few cognoscenti. Every adolescent’s dream. The separatists of my youth were believers in the literal truth of Scripture, which gave them plenty of grounds for separation: there are forty different ways to interpret “Love thy neighbor as thyself” so if you like — and face it, there is satisfaction to be found in divorce — you can draw a line in the sand and start a new church.

I’m tired of separatism. I want to be in a big crowd and feel geniality around me, the friendly push and shove of democracy.

I like to leave Walden Pond and go out into freeway America, and line up for the breakfast of generic scrambled eggs and nondescript coffee, and overhear conversation on classic topics: How Does One Correct The Bad Parenting Of One’s Children, Today’s Music — I Don’t Get It, What I Am Going To Do One of These Days, and though I’m an old Democrat in Republican territory and the waitress who whipped the eggs voted for Mr. Wrong, I feel geniality all around.

Over in the Universe Café where righteous Democrats gather to eat organic eggs from cooperative chickens, they’re wringing their hands about something they just read a book about, but over here at Mom’s, you’re welcome so long as you clean up after yourself, don’t yell at someone for no good reason, and do good work, whatever line of work you’re in, auto repair or knife sharpening or column construction. Thank you, sir, for your good work.

 


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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

I was at a family gathering Friday night at which there was no fulminating, no laments, which is rare for us Democrats. Justice Kavanaugh was barely mentioned, nor the name that rhymes with “lump.” We were there in honor of love, to meet a nephew who has moved faraway — common, for bright young ambitious people — and his French girlfriend, Kate. Matthew is a smart studious engineer, working out on a frontier that an old English major like me cannot comprehend, and it was lovely seeing him with his arm around this woman and hers around him. She is French, from Normandy, an engineer too.

There were thirty of us, retirees, small children, those in between, and surely it was the presence of small children that helped save us from ripping into the forces of evil and ignorance, and also the presence of Kate who clearly makes Matthew happy in a way that algorithms cannot. And then there was Fiona, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student spending the year with my niece and her adoptive Chinese daughter. Fiona has a beautiful radiant smile that sees her through the twisty pitfalls of English. It’s a pleasure to talk to that radiance. Apple pie with ice cream was a novelty to her, and she was curious about Christmas, which she’s never experienced, and so we sang “Silent Night” to her, a sweet transcultural moment. She was touched.

I was the one who ventured (briefly) into politics and righteousness and discovered, talking about Mr. Lump, that Kate does not understand the words “corrupt,” “mendacious,” “bully,” though she does know “dishonest” (malhonnête). The word “mendacious” is not useful in love nor in engineering: it leads to nothing. I gave up on that line of conversation and turned to writing her a limerick.

A young French woman named Kate
Came into our family late
And brought savoir-faire
And amour, mon cher,
And made our Matt a good mate.

Thanks to great leaps in engineering, Fiona is able to FaceTime with her people in China on a regular basis, very cheaply, and not feel so stranded as exchange students felt back in my day. Smart people like Kate and Matthew have bestowed great benefits: look around you. Fiona will return to China with memories of American warmth and jollity. The couples at the supper, six of us, are reminded of our own courting days, which, praise God, can continue for decades if we avoid dishonesty and bullying.

I was brought up in the midst of righteous people (no dancing, no drinking, no movies, no TV, no rambunctious play on the Lord’s Day) and have an enormous capacity for it myself, but the urge seems to diminish in old age. When in the midst of warm family feeling, an old man should put his collection of lectures in his back pocket and tend to more important business, which is sitting down beside a very shy child and trying to make her smile.

Shyness runs in my family. I have plenty of my own and am capable of sitting silent and frozen in the midst of strangers. I did a radio show and could talk a blue streak to invisible people, but in real life I still have a 13-year-old adolescent inside me. This awkwardness goes hand in hand with arrogance, which is a plague for us Democrats since we are right about almost everything.

I sat down besides my great-niece and instead of asking probing questions about her schooling, I asked, “Do you know how many counties there are in Minnesota?” She shook her head. “Eighty-seven,” I said, and I recited them rapidly in alphabetical order, “Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami,” and so on. This made her grin. It’s a simple trick, requiring no great intelligence, and it works like a charm. She was amused. She smiled at me again when the evening ended and gave me a slight hug.

It was a hard week, a steady drizzle of anger in the news, the words “divisive” and “divisiveness” everywhere you looked, and at the risk of sounding naïve, I must say it was a pleasure to sit down to hotdish and pie in honor of young love and bite my tongue when tempted to fulminate and rant.

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Writing

It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

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