You’ve been waiting for it, and here it is. “What’s this now?” you respond. Why, it’s “random ruminations,” the sort-of-annual sort-of-list of sort-of-related thoughts I produce at irregular intervals but for which, astonishingly, I’ve yet to become famous. Previous installment: March 2018. Next: Um … Decebruary?
(1) I have a confession. Although I’m a journalist dealing in a broad range of topics that include our nation’s culture clashes, I’ve not watched any video of the incident involving the MAGA-hat-wearing teens, an American Indian elder and others of mysterious provenance last week on the National Mall in Washington. I saw pictures, of course, and read about it as the news and reactions unfolded and folded back on themselves.
It’s not that I find controversies like this unimportant. There’s a benefit in discussing them and in trying to get them straight. But a relentless parsing of evidence on matters of opprobrium is not a good use of time, and these debates generate so much nonilluminating wattage that I fear they ultimately have less to do with improvement than with aspirations of superiority on all sides. (If you insist that I admit it, yes, even on the side of abstainers.)
In any case, conflict is a standard feature of society. I have a pragmatic phrase for it, if you will: people behaving behaviorally.
(2) Anger is a most unsatisfying emotion, because in order to be channeled constructively, it must be transmogrified into something that is no longer anger.
(3) As I’ve aged, my eyesight has been going from bad to worse. I now wear contact lenses with multifocal concentric rings (the brain is supposed to sort it all out), with cheaters on top of that, for reading. With this arrangement, I can see everything I look at, but never as clearly as I’d like. It occurs to me that this is a metaphor.
(4) News arrived Tuesday that Russell Baker, whose nationally syndicated “Observer” column appeared in the New York Times from 1962 to 1998, had died at age 93. That sent me to the internet to read a few of those columns and sift through quotations. Among them: “An educated person is one who has learned that information almost always turns out to be at best incomplete and very often false, misleading, fictitious, mendacious — just dead wrong.” True that, Mr. Baker, and nonetheless, rest in peace.
(5) When Baker began writing his column, the Times obituary reports, “he had in mind casual essays like E.B. White’s in The New Yorker, cast in ‘plain English’ with ‘short sentences,’ in contrast to what he called The Times’s ‘polysyllabic Latinate English.’ ”
I respect that. But I also don’t object to a well-placed Brobdingnagian phrasing that sends an audience scouring the back channels of vocabulary, or a dictionary. Another long-running national columnist, George F. Will, has mastered this art. An example can be found in his Jan. 23 Washington Post column, “Why do people such as Lindsey Graham come to Congress?” — which assesses the South Carolina senator’s obsequiousness with far more clarity than did our own U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar with her recent tweet “They got to him, he is compromised!”
Will writes of Graham:
“[He] has become a political windsock, and as such, he — more than the sturdy, substantial elephant — is emblematic of his party today. … During the government shutdown, Graham’s tergiversations — sorry, this is the precise word — have amazed.”
Snarky! Self-aware. And the full column is evidence that 800 words still have an advantage over 280 characters.
(6) I suspect that among the pasts in which Graham resides is one where a politician could say a certain thing for one audience and an entirely different thing for another, and few voters would be the wiser, or if they were, they wouldn’t care. That method seems like it ought to be outdated in our era of determined documentation, but Graham has held a seat in one house of Congress or the other since 1995, so maybe he knows best. (He’ll have a tougher time topping the tenure of his eight-term Senate predecessor, the eternally modern Strom Thurmond.)
(7) So, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appears to have won her contest with President Donald Trump over delaying the State of the Union address until after the shutdown. A Pyrrhic victory. However justified she may have felt in denying Trump a dominant platform during an epic political battle, she simply looks vindictive.
I will not receive universal acclaim for that view. But I have an ethic for navigating situations in which a counterparty’s intentions are suspect: It doesn’t matter what they do; it matters what I do. And by extension, the side I support.
(8) This, of course, doesn’t preclude me from being peevish. I’ve been editing letters to the editor for the Star Tribune for going on a decade. It’s fascinating, maddening, illuminating work. But there a few tired formulations I wish letter writers would cease to deploy:
• Leading with the phrase “Let me see if I can get this straight … .” You probably can’t, and it’s probably on purpose.
• Declaring that “the Star Tribune will never print this,” then offering something that would get us excoriated and/or sued if we did.
• Concluding with “as Pogo said, ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’ ”
“What’s this now?” your 21st-century audience responds.
David Banks is at, believe it or not, David.Banks@startribune.com.