This week: the president's big idea, the art of small talk, and the value of plain speaking.
Melina Mara/Washington Post
Joe Biden gave his first address to Congress on Wednesday, setting out his first term policy stall to the American public. It was a good speech, well delivered; so far he seems to have been invigorated by office rather than exhausted by it.
Left-wingers who would rather Saunders or Warren have won the nomination seem surprised at the radicalism of his proposals, but what defines moderates is their flexibility - a willingness to consider alternative paths to success - and their belief that most voters share common ground. Moderation is a sensibility, not a policy stance (similarly, moderate voters aren’t necessarily moderate in policy terms, they’re just non-ideological).
Biden always has an eye on voters who aren’t naturally ‘on his side’. Note how he talks about climate change: “For too long, we failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis: jobs, jobs, jobs.” He continues on that theme but that’s basically all he says - there’s no talk of global peril and saving the planet. Why? Because everyone agrees on jobs.
He also said, “We're in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century. We're at a great inflection point in history.” Competitiveness with China was a Trump theme (in some ways, as per Afghanistan, Biden is merely delivering on Trump’s promises). Now, Biden puts this in a way that can be interpreted as straightforward economic competition, in the Trumpian sense. But he’s actually hinting at a grander thought, which he expanded on beforehand in an informal conversation with journalists: “I think they’re going to write about this point in history… about whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century. Not a joke. Whether autocracy is the answer - these were my debates I’d have in the many times I met with Xi.”
I love that ‘not a joke’, by the way. Biden speaks a little like Trump, at least in that he does not have the high-flown fluency of the hyper-educated and prefers colloquial expression. Unlike Trump, however, he’s intellectually curious. In fact, his verbal and cognitive style is like a blend of the last two presidents: a big thinker who didn’t go to Harvard.
Biden believes that technology and science are moving so fast that they pose an existential challenge to democracy itself. The consensus used to be that if China wanted to catch with the West it would have to democratise - become more free, and more diverse, with power less centralised. But Xi has doubled down on autocracy and centralisation, partly by deploying new technologies. China is still growing. For Biden, it’s up to America to show the rest of the world that democracy is still the best platform for economic success.
I came across that passage via Kevin Kwok, one of my favourite online thinkers (as in not a professional writer, not attached to a media institution - the kind of mind I wouldn’t encounter without blogs and Twitter). Kevin adds some reflections of his own and links to a thought-provoking piece he wrote in 2018 about global economic and political changes over the last three hundred years. It’s an exhilaratingly large canvas, yet he manages to makes several great points in a concise blog post.
Here’s the very short version: the Industrial Revolution created a tsunami of economic growth that also had the effect of decentralising income and power. Those things don’t necessarily go together. Are the disruptions we’re currently living through just the beginning of a vast regression to the mean, as capital and power become more centralised again?
Kevin concludes by stressing, correctly I think, that growth is a moral and political imperative. When growth slows, society becomes a divisive, zero-sum game. Growth is what enables groups with opposing interests to find common ground. But only, of course, if they feel they can share in its proceeds.
I am available for online talks and workshops on communication, effective writing, and creating workplace cultures of curiosity and positive disagreement. Drop me an email or hit ‘reply’ here to discuss.
I joined a panel discussion of the Sewell Report organised by Policy Exchange. Unlike the other panelists I’m not an expert on racism, so perhaps it was hubristic of me to accept the invitation, although, as I said here a few weeks ago, one problem with the discourse on this topic is that the experts talk only among themselves. I enjoyed taking part.
The panel, which included Sewell himself, was mainly positive about the report. The Observer’s Sonia Sodha was left to make the case against, and she did so with characteristic force and eloquence. I still think that her side’s emphasis on definitional disputes instead of concrete actions is futile. The fact the report’s critics don’t seem to disagree with its recommended policies tells you something about how meaningful these disputes really are.
Sonia admitted that the idea of structural racism is, for the public, “counter-intuitive” and says she’d like to see it communicated better. But if it isn’t intuitive by now, I doubt it ever will be. And anyway I’m not convinced the public’s common sense idea of racism isn’t superior to this more intellectual-sounding but frustratingly vague and somewhat incoherent theory.
When progressive activists get the idea that the public needs to be educated by them, the result is rarely the one they want. In this superb interview, former Clinton strategist James Carville argues that left-wing political discourse has become hopelessly jargony, academic and abstract: “I always tell people that we’ve got to stop speaking Hebrew and start speaking Yiddish.”
In The Atlantic, I make the case for disagreeing with yourself.
In the last 100 years, the average human life span has doubled, an absolutely staggering human achievement which, of course we take for granted. In this fascinating piece, Steven Johnson explains why it was by no means inevitable and is as much a social and political achievement as a scientific one.
I feel lucky to live in Europe and be a matter of hours away from so many different countries with different languages, traditions, cultures (and climates). There’s nowhere else in the world quite like that. Europe’s diversity has played a big part in its global ascendancy over the last 1500 years or so - and for that, we can thank the collapse of the Roman Empire.
John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University, is an essential voice in American debates over racism. If you haven’t come across him before this thirty-minute interview is a good intro to his views.
This clip of Camille Paglia is gripping, not just because of what she says - a strong case against the nuclear family - but how she says it, her crackling, antic energy.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner has an excellent reader’s guide to Philip Roth.
Absolutely loved this coruscating essay on “sanctimony literature”.
This clip of Andre Agassi explaining how he learned to read Boris Becker’s serve is fantastic. As in a Cold War spy game, part of his challenge was using his information in such a way as to avoid tipping off his opponent that he had a secret source.
I’ve been enjoying McCartney’s YouTube conversations with the artists who reinvented tracks from McCartney III (“McCartney III Imagined”), like with St Vincent or Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien. These chats are a strange combination of being utterly banal and oddly transfixing, actually quite moving in parts (particularly O’Brien’s). It made realise that McCartney is good at small talk, an art in itself. It’s very hard to do small talk over Zoom. We’ll all have to re-learn it as things open up again. It is quite tricky at the best of times; I’ve often found myself stumped by the question, ‘How are you?’ I know a few people who are absolute geniuses of it, and I try and learn from them. It requires an ability to pick up on whatever threads are lying around - the weather, current affairs, new shoes - and spin them into a line of conversation. In that sense it’s a creative endeavour, not that distant from what songwriters or comedians do. Good small talkers are also comfortable with pauses in the conversation; they exude a kind of ease with the ebb and flow of words. More on this another time, perhaps. Interesting weather we’re having.
Another round of Kevin Kelly’s unsolicited advice. Lots of good stuff.
What happened to that Trump guy anyway?
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Oh and buy my book on productive disagreement. Malcolm Gladwell says it’s “Beautifully argued. Desperately needed.”
WHAT I’M READING
Empire of Things, Frank Trentmann. Scholarly but also stylish and witty history of consumerism, which avoids and indeed takes pleasure in debunking clichés on this topic. Recommended.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
”Moral indignation, which has been said to be the favourite emotion of the middle class, may be in itself an exquisite pleasure. To understand this does not invalidate moral indignation but only sets up the conditions on which it ought to be entertained.” Lionel Trilling.