Another round of elections, another set of results that are more muddle than message. I’m beginning to think that America is just messing with our minds. There’s no such thing as taking the pulse of our body politic. It won’t sit still long enough.
To go by what just happened in Kansas, the country has had its fill of extremism. On Tuesday, Kansas became the first state in which voters — not ideologically truculent lawmakers, not Supreme Court justices with God complexes — had their say about the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and those voters lashed back. They turned out in big numbers, and they decided overwhelmingly to preserve the right to abortion in the state’s constitution. The margin was about 59 percent to 41 percent.
Again, that was in largely rural, indisputably red Kansas, which Donald Trump won by more than 14 percentage points in 2020. The state’s cultural conservatism is so pronounced that when the journalist Thomas Frank wrote a book about the ways in which social issues attract voters to the Republican Party and drive their behavior, he titled it, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”
There’s nothing the matter with Kansas this week. Its citizens chose common sense and individual autonomy over theocracy and the subjugation of women. That makes me just a little less worried about the direction in which this country is headed.
But it leaves me all the more perplexed by what happened on Tuesday in Arizona, which veered as much toward extremism as Kansas did away from it.
The Republican Senate primary there was won by a young provocateur, Blake Masters, who vilifies immigrants, fetishizes firearms, called Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson a “pedophile apologist” and recently predicted — or did he boastfully pledge? — that Anthony Fauci “will see the inside of a prison cell this decade.” Naturally, he says that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Of course, he enjoys Trump’s blessing.
To make matters scarier, Mark Finchem, who also rejects President Biden’s legitimacy and is affiliated with the far-right Oath Keepers, won Arizona’s Republican primary for secretary of state. He could wind up overseeing elections in a crucial presidential battleground that was recently a hotbed of hotheads scheming to steal electoral votes for Trump.
The victories by Masters and Finchem were among many outcomes on Tuesday that suggested that being faithful to Trump and parroting his stolen-election lies were the best strategies — and in many cases necessary — for surviving and thriving in the Republican Party now. Additional far-right flourishes could be the icing on the fruitcake.
But it was just a little more than two months ago that Republican voters in Georgia ignored Trump’s cries for vengeance against two Republican officials there, Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who refused to undermine Biden’s 2020 victory in the state and somehow crown Trump instead. In the Republican primary in May, Georgia voters nominated Kemp and Raffensperger for second terms in their posts.
So if you’re looking for an overarching moral from the past several months, you’re on a fool’s quest. You’re disregarding the well-established fact that each and every political contest is its own contest, as beholden to its particular context and peculiar quirks as to any sweeping trajectory.
You’re ignoring the country’s frustrating ambiguities and ambivalences and the musty adage that on any given Tuesday, anything can happen. You’re insisting on epiphanies when enigmas are more common — and more durable.
Which brings me back to Kansas. Its voters have, I think, made a statement, but it’s possible to read too much into it. We supporters of abortion rights should be careful about that.
The Kansas result doesn’t mean that in competitive midterm races a pro-choice candidate has a decisive edge. The abortion measure was its own vote, so it doesn’t tell us how many voters would make the issue a priority when deciding on a candidate in general as opposed to a policy in particular.
Kansans were staving off the possibility that abortion would be outlawed altogether or curtailed severely in their state. That doesn’t mean they support abortion across the board. The way I have read many polls about abortion conducted over the past six months is that a majority of Americans want the procedure to remain legal and safe, but many people in that majority want restrictions on it. Their impression that the pro-choice movement won’t hear of that leads them to see it as extreme.
Then again, my take on Kansas could be contradicted by something that happens next week or next month. Given the current paroxysms of our politics, I wouldn’t be all that shocked if Liz Cheney won her primary in Wyoming on Aug. 16. Imagine pundits’ grand pronouncements in the aftermath of that. Then think about how quickly something would come along to turn those newly constructed truisms to dust.
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For the Love of Sentences
In The Economist, Matthew Holehouse rejected attempts by Rishi Sunak, one of the contenders to become Britain’s next prime minister, to appear ferocious: “It is a fascinating but unconvincing performance, like seeing Daniel Radcliffe audition for Rambo.” (Thanks to Rudy Brynolfson of Minneapolis for nominating this.)
In The Vancouver Sun, Jane Macdougall lamented her memory’s decline, hastened by the outsourcing of it to technological gadgets: “At this juncture in life, I could probably plan my own surprise party.” (Lynn Kagan, Vancouver, B.C.)
In The Atlantic, James Parker puzzled over the outtakes from Donald Trump’s taping of a video message for the country on Jan. 7, 2021: “He stands at the lectern, in his lambency, in his mysterious Trumpy softness, between two sternly drooping flags: Donald Trump, great communicator-confuser, great charismatic muddle of signals and twisty wires, groping for a mood. He’s pettish. He’s trying hard. Someone’s written this speech for him, this pompous speech, and he’s reading it in his special slushy, droning-intoning rhetorical-blah-blah-blah voice, the voice that means he doesn’t mean it.” (Judith Stein, Long Branch, N.J.)
In The Washington Post, Dana Milbank marveled at the possibility that Ivana Trump’s burial at her ex-husband’s golf course was part of recasting it as a cemetery and avoiding taxes that way: “In his forced (and, he hopes, temporary) retirement, defeated former president Donald Trump has come up with a new undertaking. He’s undertaking.” (James Franklin, Durham, N.C., and Emily Hawthorn, San Antonio, among others)
In The Times, Jason Zinoman wondered at the prevalence and variety of water bottles that comedians take onstage with them: “Their purpose seems obvious — to quench thirst, duh — but stage actors get dry mouths, and no Hamlet puts down his sword to pick up an Evian.” (Mark Silverstone, Stavanger, Norway)
John McWhorter celebrated the evolution of English. “We all know language inevitably changes; it’s the way we got from Latin to French or from Beowulf to Tom Wolfe,” he wrote, later adding: “How we use English in its Sunday best is one thing, and we should all have our linguistic tuxes at the ready. But in terms of English in a T-shirt and jeans, we should listen to it as unbiased spectators.” (Lani Jacobson, Herndon, Va., and Karen McCabe, Mt. Vernon, N.Y., among others)
And Wesley Morris swooned for Beyoncé’s vocal performance on “Renaissance,” her new album: “She coos, she growls, she snarls, she doubles and triples herself. Butter, mustard, foie gras, the perfect ratio of icing to cupcake.” (Don Johnsen, Phoenix, and Karyn Bergmann Marsh, Baltimore)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here, and please include your name and place of residence.
What I’m Reading (and Watching)
Many writers have weighed in on the importance (or not) of the office in work life, but few have made as many interesting and lively observations as Peggy Noonan in a recent Wall Street Journal column. Although I think she overstates the socioeconomic and demographic diversity of workplaces, she rightly notes that they’re the setting of so many television comedies and dramas because they’re such singular laboratories for human behavior, such fascinating experiments in the mingling and managing of dubiously compatible personality types. She also writes, poignantly: “I don’t want America to look like an Edward Hopper painting. He was the great artist of American loneliness — empty streets, tables for one, everyone at the bar drinking alone. We weren’t meant to be a Hopper painting. We were meant to be and work together.” (Thanks to James Brockardt of Pennington, N.J., for flagging the column.)
On the same general topic, Emma Goldberg in The Times noted that the still-empty office is, at this point, a phenomenon of the New Yorks and San Franciscos of the country: “Workers in America’s midsize and small cities have returned to the office in far greater numbers than those in the biggest U.S. cities.”
In last week’s newsletter, I examined the Senate race in Pennsylvania and expressed my admiration for — or at least amusement by — John Fetterman’s social media ribbing of Mehmet Oz. So I was hugely interested in this contrary perspective by Larry Platt in The Philadelphia Citizen. He raises excellent questions about the substance and dignity of Fetterman’s approach: “Does it represent one of the lasting ramifications of Trumpism — the normalization of trolling in our politics?”
I have my qualms with “Black Bird” on Apple TV+, whose finale will be made available on Friday, but I’m glad I’ve stuck with it through five episodes so far and can’t wait for the conclusion. It has some of the bloat that afflicts most streaming content, and Taron Egerton’s lead performance as a convicted drug dealer trying to extract incriminating information from a fellow prisoner was mannered at the start. But it deepened into something wonderfully nuanced. What’s more, the dialogue — between him and his quarry, him and his handler, him and a prison psychiatrist — is often brilliantly written. If you’re OK with dark subject matter and moments of enormous sadness, you may well find “Black Bird” gripping and rewarding.
I’ve received my share of hate mail after writing about gay people and about my own gayness, as I did last week. I discussed that kind of response at length in a column about two years ago.
But I just as frequently field positive, caring reactions, including this recent one from a reader in Madison, Wis.: “I’m wondering how a straight man like myself can help support gay brothers and sisters.”
I’d like to answer that not only for him but also for anyone else who might be interested in doing more and better in regard to gay people’s fitfully successful journey toward widespread respect and full equality.
Obviously, you can help by factoring us into your assessments of politicians and your votes. I’m a realist, with a sense of perspective and humility, which is to say that I don’t demand or expect that a politician’s record on gay rights will be the primary consideration for everyone who supports us. But it should absolutely be in the mix. And if a politician actively vilifies us? You can’t vote for that person and tell yourself you’re in our corner.
You can help us by considering organizations that are devoted to our welfare in any charitable giving that you do. There are many options — groups that help gay and transgender youth, groups that push for anti-discrimination measures, groups whose work focuses on health, groups concerned with housing — and I’ll leave it to you and Google to figure out which is the right fit for you.
You can help us on social media. When you see a compelling television segment or read a gripping story that communicates our dignity or exposes the undignified ways in which we can be treated, consider sharing it, especially if you think it might have the ability to soften hard hearts or open closed minds.
That’s a small part of something larger that you can do, something that’s less obvious but, I think, more potentially effective than my other suggestions: You can make us a part of your conversations.
I don’t mean all the time. I mean every so often. I mean more often than now. When you notice or think about a way in which we’re mistreated — or, conversely, a bit of progress worth celebrating — mention it. When someone else happens to do that, demonstrate your receptiveness. Engage.
When someone you know says or does something disrespectful to us, gently push back. Don’t scold, don’t scream: That could do nothing more than raise the person’s defenses and alienate them. But if all the people who support us made that a bit clearer, showing the relatives and friends who take cues from them how they feel, they might — and, I think, would — expand the ranks of our allies.
Being quietly supportive isn’t as transformative as making that support clear. Find your own measured way to do that and you’ll have my immeasurable thanks.
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