West Pointless

Robin Wright in The New Yorker, “Trump’s Vacuous West Point Address and the Revolt Against It.”

Could it be, a faux Conservative Republican losing the military establishment?

Ironically, for being so media savvy, Trump is not an orator. This was further confirmation:

“In contrast to the tradition of big ideas and new initiatives, Donald Trump’s first graduation address at West Point was vacuous—or, as Slate put it, in a headline, ‘West Pointless.’ Danny Sjursen, of the Class of 2005, who is a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and also a former West Point instructor, noted that Trump said nothing to heal a fractured nation. He didn’t address the protests over racial injustice which are taking place in more than two thousand America cities. . . . He didn’t mention a single theatre of U.S. military operations—not Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or the many places where special forces are deployed or U.S. warplanes have bombed,’ Sjursen, who has chronicled Presidential appearances at West Point since Kennedy, told me.

Trump also offered no words of comfort about the coronavirus pandemic—or thanks to the cadets for the most complicated commencement address ever held at West Point. It was a stark and lonely graduation, because family and friends could not attend. The cadets paraded onto an empty field, in white face masks and their famed gray jackets, to sit on white folding chairs more than six feet apart. Instead of marching onstage to get their degrees, they exchanged salutes with Trump from a distance. It was another Trump photo op—writ large.”

How do you really feel Barry McCaffrey?

“Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star general from the Class of 1964, who taught at West Point, called Trump’s address ‘a collection of awkward, badly delivered bromides. It was dead, disjointed. The good news is that it’s over.'”

Exactly what we’ll say on Tuesday, January 19th, 2021.

In Praise of Literary Tussles

The week that was. Ukraine v Russia. Israel v Palestine. Syria v the Islamic State group. Too many lives cut short, too many families torn asunder.

If only we could substitute bloodless literary tussles for the violent ones that dominate the headlines.

For that to happen, we need provocative essay writers willing to ruffle readers’ feathers. Enter Tom Junod of Esquire. I’m guessing he was caught off-guard by just how many feathers his essay “In Praise of 42 Year-Old Women” ruffled.

I really, really, really liked Julie Checkoway’s clever and perceptive response to Junod. Checkoway convincingly hypothesizes that Junod is struggling with his mortality.

She writes:

Men have a lot more trouble, I think, admitting their fear of aging and death than women do. In my experience, women are more openly verbal, at least, about our terror. Typically, men either joke about it or have affairs or splurge on a sports car (these are stereotypes, so fill in your own experience of men here). But they rarely write about the terror of aging honestly. . .

But men are just as terrified as women of aging and dying. . . . How could they not be? They’re human. It’s just that they talk about it in a different way than women do. They talk about it by talking about women’s . . . fading attractiveness. And most men’s magazines—-unlike most women’s magazines—-aren’t filled with articles that expressly address aging graciously, painfully, or at all.

Men’s magazines, like Esquire, are filled with articles like Junod’s, articles in which men talk about how it’s okay with them for women to age. Just a little. And then a little more. And then a little more. Men are writing about death and aging, but they’re just writing about it by writing about us.

Checkoway’s response to Junod is direct, caring, specific, and philosophically rich. And her analysis rings true.

What Great Communicators Do

Great communicators eschew vague generalities for specific details. It’s easier to find examples of muddled writing and speaking weighted down with vague generalities than the opposite.

Recently, for example, a New York congressman was asked why he is sponsoring a bill to arm Syrian rebels. “Because,” he said, “doing nothing is a worse option and the United States has to stand for something.” When we use “thing” and its variations, “things”, “something”, “everything”, “anything”, our readers and listeners are stuck playing a maddening and distracting guessing game, wondering exactly what we may have been thinking.

• The United States has to stand for the rights of people anywhere in the world to resist authoritarianism?

• The United States has to stand for commerce anywhere in the world, including arms sales?

• The United States has to stand for any and all approaches of ridding the Middle East of Assad?

Another case in point. A school district curriculum director attempts to explain the Common Core (four minutes long, start at 1:49), but succumbs to vague generalities. She uses the term “content” repeatedly, and “topic”, and “rigor”, and “depth”, but never refers to a specific classroom lesson; consequently, her presentation left me more confused than beforehand. I got excited and perked up at the 1:49 point when she said, “For example in math. . .”, but alas, she continued to torture me with vague references to “content”, “topics”, “content”, “rigor”, “content”, “depth”, “content”.

I would buy her a roundtrip ticket to Hawaii if she would just say, “For example, now when fourth grade teachers teach fractions. . .” or  “For example, now when sixth grade math teachers teach ratios. . .” It’s like craving fruits and vegetables and having to settle for a grilled cheese sandwich on Wonderbread.

Contrast those negative examples with these positive ones. Last week’s George Packer excerpt, which I used to highlight the way he engages readers through unpredictably short, medium, and long sentences, is equally noteworthy for it’s wonderful specificity. Here again is Packer’s nutritious opening sentence:

Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Paris Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect, and someday it might be a package service, like U.P.S.

Our congressman and curriculum director might have written, “Amazon is selling everything and getting really big.” Packer takes the time, no doubt through multiple revisions, to explain Amazon’s reach through specific references that even someone like me can easily grasp:

. . . like Walmart, like Apple, like Con Edison, like Netfilix, like Random House, like Paramount, like the Paris Review, like Fresh Direct, like U.P.S.

Your reward, George, is in heaven.

Granted, the writer always has the advantage over the speaker because she can “put every word on trial” over and over. But through repeated practice, we can “think forward”, developing a mental teleprompter of sorts, and learn to speak more clearly by illustrating abstract concepts and insights with specific details.

Consider, Kenny “The Jet” Smith on last week’s edition of the NBA’s brilliant “Inside the NBA”. I dig that show so much sometimes I tape it for the next morning’s indoor cycling session, never the game that precedes it though. It’s worth deconstructing for several reasons, but last week The Jet decided to help out the humble blog with this rumination on the San Antonio Spurs continued success:

It’s the ultimate view of trust. They just trust. That I’m gonna sprint back. If the play on defense is to send the guy baseline, I’m just gonna trust that someone is going to be there. If I run the lane, I trust that I’m gonna get it. If I set the pick. . . If I dribble up the court and I’m Tony Parker I trust that the guy is coming open. It’s the ultimate viewing of what trust in basketball is all about.

The concept of “trust” is about as abstract as they come, but he explained it with repeated, specific examples that made it easy to grasp.

Follow in George’s and The Jet’s footsteps. Your audiences will thank you.

// ]]>

The Inevitability of Military Conflict

Most of the time I believe the “human condition is improving” side of the ledger trumps the “life is worsening” side.

Right now at least, after watching an excellent documentary about Egypt’s civil war, reading about Syria’s three-pronged civil war, and following the BBC’s up close coverage of the terror attack in Kenya, plus the one in Pakistan, I’m less certain of that.

The lesson of those conflicts and most others from the last 50 years is this: the victor’s brutality—whether in civil wars or international ones—sows the seeds of future conflicts. Devastated and humiliated, losers vow revenge; as a result, violence continues unabated.

“An eye for an eye,” Ghandi said, “makes the whole world blind.” No side ever truly wins a war because the underlying causes of the conflict—poverty, greed, ethnic hatred, religious fundamentalism, nationalism, desperation—are exacerbated by the military excesses of the seeming victors. Diplomacy loses, moderates are radicalized, children resolve to avenge their dead parents’ lives. What appears to be an absence of war is just an interlude in the back-and-forth between suicide bombers, anonymous drone missile strikes, and ground combat.

My government doesn’t appear to be learning the lessons of war. Our diplomatic efforts are not increasingly wise or effective. As evidence of that, despite representing 4% of the world’s population, we continue to account for 50% of the world’s military spending.

Our only hope may be running out of money. Someday maybe, we’ll realize we can’t rebuild our infrastructure, pay teachers adequately, provide affordable medical care, compete in the global economy, and invest more in our military while providing security for other governments (see Japan among others).

Like Conservative Republican Southern governors who are backtracking on mandatory prison sentence laws because they can’t afford their incarcerated populations, maybe the day is coming when the State Department will have to step up its game to compensate for a leaner military.

In the meantime, I don’t expect to see meaningful peace in Syria in my lifetime or democracy in Egypt. I hope I’m wrong and Isaiah is right. Chapter two, verse four:

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.