There has been so much written about “woke” that I hesitate to add to the glut. And so I will. It’s probably gotten to the point where most black people would just as soon avoid the term. When language gets so loaded that it incites cultural warfare it’s time to unload it. But since woke effectively serves the purposes of denial and deception for others, you can bet that’s not going to happen.
A new survey shows that “Americans generally view the term woke in a favorable light.” The poll also seems to show that “People don’t want to be shamed or canceled by the woke mob—but they also don’t want to be told by the heavy hand of the government how to behave.” Gov. DeSantis might just end up abusing his powers. We may hope so.
DeSantis famously declared: “We can never, ever surrender to woke ideology. And I’ll tell you this, the state of Florida is where woke goes to die.” For more on the governor’s agenda, look at this. “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” he says.
The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund gives us a welcome history of the term and how it became transformed from a positive warning to a highly negative threat. The word has become demonized.
Woke started out as black slang, apparently a long time ago, but has taken on all kinds of meanings today. White folks often distort meanings of vernacular black cultural talk. Some years ago I did a humorous take on how people misunderstand “hip.”
See, jazz people use ‘hip’ differently from the common herd. They use it to mean something exclusive to an inside group, some kind of knowledge thing valued by that group that puts them one up on the rest of the ofay world. Hip is survival for black people but with a humorous touch.
Anyhow, woke originally meant being “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination,” but these days the right tends to use it for a much broader range of social inequalities like sexuality, sexism, gender, socio-demographics, book banning, etc. It’s now become a ubiquitously negative code word for a wide variety of social movements, including LGBTQ issues, feminism, immigration, climate change and marginalized communities.
When a concept gets this puffed up it loses its meaning, and so most folks don’t really understand it. And people don’t like to be preached to about their behavior. They dislike being given standards of conduct by self-appointed “police” who prosecute and judge them. They may see this as arrogance, self-righteousness. Which, of course, may not stop tin-pot dictators like DeSantis from using the term.
Woke also can imply that everyone who disagrees with you is “asleep.” As others have noted, it’s a form of gaslighting. “I am right, and if you disagree with me, it’s because you’re ‘asleep,’ which just proves that I am right.”
Its widespread usage just furthers the GOP’s constant negativism—which is their policy on everything. And it’s’ not just the GOP. We could go on, for instance about the liberals’ seeming endorsement of gender-free pronouns and dubious constructions like “latinx”—but that’s another story.
A funny thing about jazz, at least lately, is that its great practitioners often get more notice when they die than when they lived. That’s certainly true about Charles Mingus who passed in 1979 and whose 100th birthday was celebrated last year to much acclaim.
Wayne Shorter, another jazz great, died last Thursday at age 89. His large recorded output survives him, of course, and now the critics (like me) grab the opportunity to speak out about his greatness, uniqueness, and transformative powers.
Shorter was one of jazz’s strong composers besides being a reed player who could shape the conventional forms of the music into something truly new. So I don’t want to hear encomiums about him; I want to know how he did this. The praise will soon fade; the music won’t.
The typical obits gave the facts, as they should. But some writers went beyond that. As jazz critics will do, they offered up spiritual, even flamboyant versions of what they heard in Shorter’s music. Richard Brody of The New Yorker knows his jazz but spoke a different language in trying to express what for him was the essence of Wayne’s music:
Unlike such spiritual seekers of the avant-garde as Coltrane and Albert Ayler, Shorter, even during his most vehement solos, wasn’t heaven-storming but heaven-gazing and heaven-longing, looking rapturously upward—again, in effect, in two places at once.
Jazz people don’t talk like this. Neither should their critics. The people who really understood how to write about Shorter were other musicians, like Ethan Iverson who wrote five years ago about Shorter’s seminal recordings in the 1960s:
The compositions on “Speak No Evil” occupy a rarified plane. They aren’t quite hard bop, they aren’t quite modal. Elements of everything are just there, hanging out in a new and inspired way. The musicians at large loved it, then and now. Every song on “Speak No Evil” has been learned by each new generation of jazz students. Every solo by Shorter, Hubbard, and Hancock has been transcribed and assimilated.
Jazz lovers want to understand how the music they love was created, appreciated (or not), and produced. Let the jazz audience, not the critics, be the spiritual and rhetorical interpreters of what they are hearing. My feelings about a piece of music may or may not be yours.
And, one hopes, the critic can positively influence the public reception and understanding of a music—and do this in a timely way. My book, Mingus Speaks, finally got published almost 40 years after I had finished the interviews with Charles. The unconscionable delay was owing to some troubling and difficult times for me. You know, “life happens when you’re making other plans.”
Anyhow, the last time I saw Mingus was after a set at the Village Vanguard in 1973, I think. He fixed me with the Mingus glare and said, “I guess you’ll finally do the book after I’m dead.” And that’s what happened.
Wayne said it best: “I never make the same mistake twice. I make it five or six times, just to be sure.”
The folks who make their living off jazz and love it and write about it should speak up when it counts. What you have to say about the music can make all the difference to the people who play it. Wayne Shorter’s music was just too singular and important to be treated with fawning praise.
You must have noticed that so many public figures are guilty of excesses of the grossest kind. Moderation is out, self-indulgence is in. Hate and acrimony have become the coin of the realm. No wonder antisemitism is on the rise.
The top newsmakers are all masters of excess, as they parade their unique versions of cultural debauchery: Putin’s historically induced fantasies of conquest verge on madness; Musk raises egotism to new heights; Greene glories in her own idiocy; Santos gives new meaning to the concept of truth; Bankman-Fried tries to outdo Bernie Madoff. Trump, to be sure, is godfather to them all.
For sheer cultural excess, the scourge of guns in America outdoes them all.
About a year ago in a sort of whimsical piece I took to praising Oscar Wilde and his notion that “nothing succeeds like excess.” Maybe I should have thought twice about endorsing this idea. The common American culture has become excessively debauched in so many ways, and not only by the far right.
Liberal identity politics has sometimes assumed that people from red states are culturally and politically backward—and so it offers a kind of “cultural imperialism” to help these benighted souls. This is a sort of culture shock, often just another form of chauvinism like American exceptionalism. American life is full of such examples, as in the half-century it took to finally give women the right to vote. Racism is an extreme form of cultural chauvinism.
In my Oscar Wilde piece, I took on the truism that nothing succeeds like success, the notion that Oscar parodied. Another way of saying this is that “North Americans commonly believe that anyone who works hard enough will be successful and wealthy. Underlying this belief is the value that wealth is good and important.” Mm-hmm, and do we really believe that the wealthy deserve all their privileges?
The values of our society, which used to represent ideal conditions or accepted truths, seem to have lost their power. The norms that enforce them, like expecting fairness in a transaction, are consistently breached. How are we supposed to judge the controversy over Hunter Biden’s laptop? Or the immigration debate, which has been clouded over with years of ranting on both sides?
My rant here is not going to change anything. To expect us to return to Aristotle’s golden mean—avoiding extremes, the measure of virtue—is a fool’s errand. Most people don’t know who Aristotle is.
The New York Times has always irritated me with its insistence on using what are called “courtesy titles” (such as Dr., Mr., Ms., or Mrs.) to the point of producing fussy schoolmarm English. Here’s a ridiculous recent instance:
There’s no need to speculate about whether Mr. DeSantis is the “next” Reagan or Obama. Not even Mr. Obama and Mr. Reagan were clearly Obama or Reagan at this stage. And Mr. Reagan and Mr. Obama differ from Mr. DeSantis in the very same way that he’s purportedly similar to Mr. Walker, as both Mr. Obama and Mr. Reagan rose to prominence by commanding the national stage in famous speeches during their party’s campaigns in 1964 and 2004.
For years The Times has had its own Manual of Style and Usage, which also states that “since about 2015, courtesy titles have not been used in sports pages, pop culture, and fine arts.” This is snobbish usage, is it not? Politicians get status, and sports or arts figures do not? Think about that for a minute.
Punctuation and style can convey not only an editorial attitude but inadvertent humor. The internet offers lots of examples.
With the advent of online communication and its predominance, casual writers often get sloppy with their punctuation. There’s a lot of advice on the net about how to punctuate properly. But this is something that most people learn by reading and observing how good writers write. It’s (not “Its”) how we learn basic language skills.
The other day, a friend wrote me this in an email: “The new takeout place on Porfirio sounds convenient and inviting, too. Would Strunk & White say I still need that comma?” Good question, so I responded this way:
Re the comma before “too”: Strunk and White (I looked it up) has nothing on this but my personal choice would be never to use a comma there though I’ve read that this is preferred, at least in more formal English. So I Googled the problem and found this:
“When should I put a comma before too? When using the word too, you only need to use a comma before it for emphasis. According to The Chicago Manual of Style, a comma before too should be used only to note an abrupt shift in thought.”
The Manual of Style is my bible in such matters of editorial style, and so be it. Commas and their usage have always been feisty things.
And yet, you’ve got to be totally unconscious to write something like “Let’s eat Grandma!” or “Students get first hand job experience.” The written word reflects our informal speech, now more than ever. Punctuation now guides meaning, more than ever.
The worst sort of ageism has been stalking Joe Biden. The biggest count against him is that if he runs he’ll be 86 at the end of his term in 2024, and polls show his negatives are mostly about his age. As someone who has eight years on him (he is 80, I’m 88), I rise to his defense.
Getting to this age involves some familiar tradeoffs with your body. I’ve been lucky on that score, and for the most part Joe has too. I’ve seen so many recent hip fractures and replacements among friends, digestive disorders, deaths, disablements and debilitations. One survives by having good genes, following (mostly) the dictates of good health, and being lucky.
Biden’s brain seems to be working pretty well. He sometimes has a short fuse when responding to dumb questions. And yes, he can ramble on. People are quick to focus on his stumbles boarding a plane, his flubs on delivering a speech, the stuttering, his gait when walking, and so on. Only a few recognize the severe disabilities that Presidents FDR and JFK had to overcome—and their success in doing so. Biden’s problems pale in comparison.
I still don’t quite understand why his approval numbers are so bad. Some 62% say he hasn’t accomplished much, despite a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, $369 billion in climate initiatives, and tremendous growth in job numbers. His policy positions should appeal broadly but don’t, though they reflect large-scale approval of their aims. “A third of registered voters have heard ‘nothing at all’ about the climate law, while another 24 percent heard ‘a little’ and 29 percent heard ‘some.’” So says Politico.
Despite a shaky start, his State of the Union speech was strong. It demonstrated that he could quickly and effectively respond to provocations from the Other Side. Who could ask “for a better foil than Marjorie Taylor Greene”? His performance showed that he could effectively think on his feet. The expected catalog of Biden accomplishments was presented so as to be understandable (if not appealing) to everyone. Few presidents have been able to do this as well.
The major problem for Biden seems to be (1) that his administration hasn’t put his achievements in terms to appeal to a mass audience, and (2) made sufficient efforts to get that message out. Young people in particular aren’t tuning in, and “Americans broadly distrust Biden, McCarthy and both parties in Congress.” Some 60% see no progress in job creation even though “Biden has overseen the fastest pace of job growth in U.S. history, with unemployment reaching lows not seen in decades.”
Hurrah, but perhaps the problem is more than messaging. People need to see action and results, some kind of evidence that the Biden policies and legislation are working. The administration has less than two years to show us more tangible progress. Shooting down spy balloons gets a lot of press; opening new chip plants does not.
Joe’s folks need to rebuild their communications efforts. Show us the benefits in real time and tell us stories with real people that we can believe in.
Maybe China thought their balloon was a gesture toward bringing normality. Really, they have so many other ways to spy. Balloons usually signify something playful, positive or benign. What’s wrong with collecting weather data?
I know, you don’t buy that. But maybe they didn’t want a Blinken visit at this time either. Who needs more protests and street violence? They also don’t need the American media blathering about incursions into our sacred space. This is more a political than a military issue anyhow.
The Secretary will have a lot to deal with when he does visit.
Xi: Tony, good to see you. Sorry you misinterpreted our goodwill gesture with the balloon. I know you don’t accept our weather data explanation but we did apologize. Damn cold front screwed it up. Maybe we just wanted to see how you idiots would react to our unmanned civilian airship.
Blinken: Let’s talk turkey, man. We two countries both spy on each other a lot. But we gotta keep these efforts hidden from public view. Since we both are trying to control the world, we certainly don’t want the noisy media getting in the way. Can I have some more dim sum, please?
Perhaps real secrecy in this world has become a bad joke, and both sides know it. Why are we hearing so little about the second balloon over Costa Rica and Colombia? Latin America, as always, is off-stage to the U.S. My bet is that there will be no big surprises when the equipment gets fished out and examined. The U.S. again makes national security mountains out of molehills.
Yesterday morning Jake Tapper interviewed Marco Rubio, one of the Senate’s lesser lights. Marco kept hammering on the idea that the balloon should have been taken down sooner. Of course, that would have made the problem worse. Have you noticed that most all proposals made by Republicans would make things worse?
When I lived in Rhode Island a beautiful hot air balloon set down on our front lawn one morning. The folks getting out of the gondola were ecstatic about their ride, and I’ve always wanted to experience that. Balloons are beautiful and fun. The Chinese one was neither, and so it went against our expectations and sensibilities, making it a perfect subject for controversy.
I beg to offer up some half-baked fallacies that many people still find plausible. On serious inspection, they are either unworkable, unattainable, or ill-conceived. Still, our society is often moved to accept, even welcome them.
Gun control. Many Americans are up in arms about the recent mass shootings, growing in numbers each year. Feckless proposals are constantly made urging the feds to end the sale of assault weapons, institute background checks, etc. and so forth. No serious reforms will happen while the GOP is in thrall to the gun industry. As long as Republicans keep playing on the obsessive fears of the MAGA masses, they will never give up their guns and the carnage will continue. Even dogs are shooting people.
Danger from gas stoves. We read lots of stories now about the environmental and health dangers of gas stoves. Really, how hazardous are these for most of us? Are cow burps and farts worse? And what about water heaters and space heaters that use 29% and 69% respectively more gas than stoves? Around 38% of U.S. families (124 million of them) have gas stoves, and who’s going to pay for them to convert to electric induction cooking? The average cost of an induction stove is over $2,200 and the needed electrical upgrades average around $1,000.
Netflix. If you love movies and TV series, there are plenty of alternatives to Netflix, which has become truly pathetic. “Netflix pumps out flavorless assembly line Jello in hopes something, anything, might ensnare a fan base.” If you live outside the U.S. as I do, their library is filled mostly with junk offerings, stupid kid films, repulsive horror shows, and comedies that aren’t funny. In 2022 Netflix lost 1.2 million subscribers and not only because it raised its prices.
Classified documents. Pence and Biden are now found irresponsible and guilty of harboring these papers, though Trump kept not a few but hundreds and refused to give them back. The whole process is outdated and unworkable, “national security” notwithstanding. Six years ago, looking at Clinton’s emails, we knew that “the government is classifying too many documents.” And why are government officials permitted to take them home?
The Doomsday Clock. It was created in 1947 by scientists to point out the dangers of nuclear war to the world. In 2007 it also incorporated climate change. Now, as a metaphor to alert people to incipient catastrophe it’s pretty much ignored. Last Tuesday the Clock was set to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest ever, because of the nuclear dangers in Ukraine. Are climate change and Putin’s posturing equal threats? What happens when we get to 5 seconds? The Clock seems to have become an abstract, ineffective way to promote concern and action.
These feel-good concepts still appeal to many people. And yet they are basically ill-conceived solutions for intractable problems. In our sometimes desperate need to fix things we seem to entertain solutions that create more difficulties than they solve. Like electing George Santos.
In many societies the elders have led the way. This is called gerontocracy, giving the alte kakers real political power. In the United States this seems forever to have been the province of Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, Pat Leahy, Jim Clyburn, and Dianne Feinstein—all now on or over the cusp of retirement. Nancy was smart to get out when she did, and Democratic gerontocracy has been under fire.
We know the many stories about Biden’s gaffes, his flare-ups of temper, his halting presentation skills. Gaffes go along with aging, as I can attest. Many in his party would like a younger face for 2024 but the alternatives (and a bruising primary) would make for a daunting situation. You’re not going to get a President Buttigieg in two years.
Assuming he does run in 2024, Mr. Biden will face the defining issue of his age. That, I think, is a major reason for the consistent low standings in his approval ratings. His accomplishments notwithstanding, Joe is still Uncle Joe to those who voted for him and a sometimes doddering old coot to others, i.e., Republicans and many swing voters.
Now comes the documents scandal, which the president’s staff bungled badly: no mea culpa explanations, feckless responses way too slow out of the gate, making light of the situation, altogether deplorable crisis management. Quinnipiac (and I hate to quote Byron York) found that 62% “said Biden acted inappropriately, versus just 21% who said he acted appropriately. That’s nearly a 3-to-1 margin of people who do not believe Biden acted appropriately, which does not bode well for his future attempts to get past the scandal.”
Then there’s the ongoing furor about Hunter, the wayward son. Republicans smell a rat, and the Biden folks have never come clean about all this. The latest revelations about Hunter and his crooked Chinese cohorts seem to make it a still-brewing scandal that the GOP won’t fail to exploit.
In foreign affairs, Uncle Joe is still dogged by how badly he executed the Afghanistan pullout. Still, if his handling of the Ukraine war continues to be successful with the electorate, the stain of that retreat “may be washed away,” in Ross Douthat’s opinion. How Biden handles the jittery economy and the knotty issues of immigration in the next two years may well determine his 2024 fate.
So, of course, will his health—and all the crazy vicissitudes of the world situation. The pressure on Uncle Joe to step down will continue, and I have doubts about whether he will in fact run. God knows I wouldn’t, were I in his shoes, despite his legislative accomplishments.
Biden’s people have urged the White House to “let Biden be himself, even if that occasionally leads to uncomfortable moments on camera.” As I’ve learned about myself, your friends do understand the upsides and downsides of aging. Biden’s decision will rest on whether, given the situation, he understands the conditions and limitations of his own body and mind. I don’t think politics will play a significant role in that.