United States Cultural Divide: Two Americas

(Peppersmint/Getty Images)

Increasingly, we act as though we inhabit entirely separate realities.

Welcome to “The Tuesday,” a weekly newsletter about language, culture, politics, and shameless book-plugging and book-hawking and book-peddling.

A Skeleton Key to Trump Country

I write about politics and things related to politics, which means that I write about a world in which people pretend to be driven by values or ideology but are mainly driven by the sometimes-furtive, sometimes-brazen quest for status, and so I have come to appreciate the refreshing frankness of the travel industry’s treatment of status: You know exactly what your status is with American Airlines or Hilton, where you are on the upgrade list, what kind of perks or accommodations you can expect, etc. A few years ago, when Rich Lowry asked me to write a piece about poverty in Appalachia, I rented a car for the trip, and there was a problem with my reservation — but I rented a lot of cars at that time and had just mad status, so I ended up touring some of the poorest places in America in a Cadillac Escalade in the color GM calls “diamond white.” It didn’t exactly blend in, but I’ve never been particularly good at that or had much interest in it.

I’ve been thinking about that trip.

There is a convention in the publishing world that new books come out on Tuesday, and today marks the release of my new one, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank and Woolly Wilds of the “Real America.” The title of the book comes from that Cadillac-enabled report about poverty, which focuses mostly on Eastern Kentucky. The book is a collection of long-form reports for National Review, many revised and expanded, touching on subjects that seem to me to represent certain forking paths in American culture: rural poverty, suburban addiction, and urban crime; pornography; casino gambling; marijuana legalization; the facts about the energy business and modern farming; the political violence on the streets of Portland; municipal bankruptcy; the strange cultural and political overlap between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. One of the great things about doing the kind of work I do is that I get to go places I ordinarily wouldn’t, places where I don’t belong: a flat-earther convention, a homeless encampment, a conclave of white-power knuckleheads rallying around Confederate monuments. The book is a collection of interesting stories, not a collection of arguments or refinements of political ideology. I think you might enjoy it.

I am not much of a salesman, but, obviously, I hope you will buy it.

When Donald Trump was nominated in 2016, the shock of it exnihilated into existence a whole genre of “white working class” reporting, often with a Jane Goodall-ish feeling to it —“Lookit, Caitlyn, they seem almost human!” — that was held in almost universally low regard. Conservatives complained, not without good reason, that much of that reporting was shallow and shaped by the unshakeable preconception that this is all somehow about racism and Christian fanaticism; progressives complained, not without good reason, that reporting about subjects such as poverty and addiction has been noticeably more sympathetic when the stars of the show are white, and especially white and middle-class. But I think that that kind of reporting is well-intentioned and useful — it’s always good to get journalists out of New York City and Washington, D.C. Much of that white-working-class reportage hasn’t been very good, but the effort is worth something.

It’s worth something because that fault-line in American cultural life is real. Increasingly, we act as though we inhabit entirely separate realities. Some of the work I think of as a “skeleton key for Trump country,” reports from on the ground in places and situations that tend to be covered poorly by much of the press to the extent that they are covered at all. But part of the story — a big part — is how people in those communities perceive the outside world, which is why I’ve spent so much time writing about crime in places such as Chicago and Philadelphia, and the rolling crime wave that is leftist street violence in Portland. Most people can’t be reached, of course, because you can’t reason someone out of a belief that he wasn’t reasoned into. But the curious facts and arresting little details of real life in the world as it actually is — as opposed to the world of our political narratives and economic models — have a certain power. The people who have the inclination to be moved or enlightened by such things are the people for whom this book was written — the people for whom any book worth a damn is written.

Book tours stopped being a big thing a long time ago, though some very popular writers still do a version of the classical campaign. In the age of COVID-19, such events are even less of a practical option than they once were. That means I’ll be doing a lot of talk radio and other media in the coming weeks — I think you might enjoy my C-SPAN conversation with Salena Zito when it comes out, and I had a very fun talk with Ben Shapiro yesterday. If you get sick of the sound of my voice, the irritation may be soothed at least a little bit by the knowledge that I, too, get sick of the sound of my voice.

It is a tremendous privilege to get to do what I do, for which I am grateful to my colleagues at National Review and National Review Institute, and to you who read and support that work. This kind of work is all that I’ve ever really wanted to do, partly because I enjoy it but also because I think it can do some good in the world, not by inspiring a mass movement or rallying support behind this or that political candidate but by helping people to know and understand a little bit more about the parts of the world with which they do not have very much personal experience, and thereby to live lives that are a little larger and a little richer.

And then there’s the fact that I like to drive . . .

Words About Words

Canard is an interesting one.

In English, canard means, roughly, bullsh**, “an unfounded rumor or story,” as our friends over at the Oxford dictionaries put it. From the same source we learn that the word is pronounced in the Anglo way, “except in the realm of cookery (canard sauvage, etc.), where the French pronunciation of canard is retained.”

You can never tell how a word’s pronunciation is going to change when going from one language to another, especially if that second language is English: We pronounce salvage (from the Old French sauver) as SALV-edge, but in “The Dry Salvages,” T. S. Eliot informs us that the Massachusetts place name (“presumably les trois sauvages”) from his childhood “is pronounced to rhyme with assuages.”

But I’m off on a wild goose chase.

Or a wild duck (canard sauvage) hunt. Because canard in French literally means duck. How did we get from entrée to “an unfounded rumor or story”? Nobody really knows. One account, possibly itself a canard, is that the English canard comes from a French expression meaning to cheat someone, vendre un canard à moitié, “sell someone half a duck.” The origin of the French word canard is itself obscure, the best guess being that the Old French quanart is an onomatopoeia, like calling a dog a woofer.

(Which would make a little puppy a subwoofer, even if that doesn’t really work as a speaker analogy.)

Some uses of canard are more obviously ducky. (Bill and Pat Buckley called each other “Ducky,” hence the name of WFB’s sailboat, Patito.) For example, if you’ve ever seen a fighter jet with a little wing in front of the big wing, that little wing is a canard, and several aircraft with Francophone origins have been known as canard: the Swiss Aviafiber Canard 2FL, the French Blériot V Canard, etc. The little fins on the front spoilers of some cars are canards. The Eurofighter Typhoon is described as a “European twin-engine, canard delta wing, multirole fighter.” There’s a cultural marker for you: Howard Hughes had his Spruce Goose, the U.S. military its F-15 Eagle, and the French go to war behind something that sounds like it should have à l’orange after its name.

(Yes, conservatives love to make fun of the French. It’s good sport, but I’m very pro-France. And you’d think that our so-called nationalists would appreciate that, whatever their national deficiencies, the one thing the French almost never do is apologize for being French. They love their language and their culture, and I love that about them.)

(Full disclosure: I did not spell onomatopoeia correctly on my first attempt.)

Rampant Prescriptivism

Some things are clear. Other things are more clear. Or are they?

A reader writes to ask about writing “more clear,” as in, “Let’s try to make this procedure more clear.” Clear, like most adjectives, has three forms: the positive (clear), the comparative (more clear), and the superlative (clearest). (The last of these also is sometimes known as the Trumpian form.) “More clear” is a perfectly good phrase, I think, and there are a couple of ways of thinking about this. One may be starting with something that is not clear at all, and asking to make it clearer would imply that it was somewhat clear to begin with. So, you might write: “Could we make this sentence less confusing and more clear?” That’s especially attractive if there’s some parallelism involved: “We want a system that is more transparent, more open, and more fair,” rather than “We want a system that is more transparent, more open, and fairer.” The regular comparative feels more natural for common, informal speech: “Drunker than Cooter Brown,” not “More drunk than Cooter Brown.”

If my answer isn’t satisfying, I’ll try to be prescriptiver next time.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

As mentioned — more than once! — you can buy my new book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. Find out what’s got those ridiculous ninnies over at American Greatness running around with their dresses over their heads.

Red America generally understands Blue America a hell of a lot better than Blue America understands Red America. Why? The answers can be found in the New York Post.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to Mad Dogs & Englishmen here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

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In Closing

Having mentioned, as I often do, the great poet (and conservative) T. S. Eliot, I think I should have put this somewhere in Big White Ghetto:

Now, we come to discover that the moments of agony
(Whether, or not, due to misunderstanding,
Having hoped for the wrong things or dreaded the wrong things,
Is not in question) are likewise permanent
With such permanence as time has. We appreciate this better
In the agony of others, nearly experienced,
Involving ourselves, than in our own.
For our own past is covered by the currents of action,
But the torment of others remains an experience
Unqualified, unworn by subsequent attrition.
People change, and smile: but the agony abides.

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