Man meets moment

Why I liked Biden's speech, how Prince made Kiss, and a story that will blow your mind.

Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Somewhat unexpectedly, Biden made the best inaugural speech I can remember. I thought it was better than either of Obama’s, even though Obama is the greater orator, and even though Biden’s effort was rambling, overloaded with stock phrases, and - hey, this is Joe Biden - too long. Why do I think it worked? For the same reason that Biden ran such a successful campaign: he knew exactly what he wanted to say, and he truly, deeply, possibly madly believes in it. (You can read a hundred books about speechwriting but that formula - clarity and conviction - cannot be improved upon; it will beat the strategies of every learned rhetorician or smarty-pants consultant). Biden believes that America needs to heal, that he is the leader to help it do so, and that’s it. That’s why he’s here. He didn’t try and lay out his policy agenda. You never felt like he was going through a list of messages put together by his political staff. He aimed high above normal politics - indeed, the speech might have evaporated into the freezing air were it not for the fact it was so profoundly felt. His language wasn’t flowery or elaborate; it was direct and it was urgent, pressing his audience to feel what he feels. That Lincoln quote, about putting his whole soul into this, was the keystone of a soulful address. Conviction lifted his delivery too. Some passages he declaimed, others he spoke as if to a friend who needs to be put straight. At points he slowed down and let silences in, allowing his sentences to breathe. He took a prayer. The heavy blinking and the fumbled words - traces of his stutter - only served as reminders of what can be achieved through force of will. Now, I think it’s very possible that we will look back in a few years’ time on Biden’s presidency and deem it a failure. Washington is screwed up, America’s political culture is poisoned, and it’s almost certainly beyond the powers of any president to solve these problems. And yes, he’s old. But whatever happens next, I will always find the story of Biden’s wayward progress to that podium a moving one. Half a century in politics, a two-time presidential loser, a reliable source of ridicule, a life battered by death - almost a Quixote-like figure, a man out of time. Yet there he was on Wednesday, this aged knight, slightly wobbly in the saddle, calling for a truce, having gathered up every ounce of himself to vanquish the greatest threat to American democracy since - well I’m not sure when. And I think George Bush is right: nobody else could have done it. Perhaps it took someone who had experienced all of that failure to succeed in that mission. I don’t know how the next four years will go, but as far as I’m concerned, Biden became a great president the moment he took the oath.

MISCELLANY

  • The Bernie meme is a great example of one of my principles of communication - you can’t not communicate. It’s not your choice. You can only shape what you do communicate (not that, in this instance, Bernie gives a hoot).

  • Very good podcast interview with Moncef Slaoui, head of Operation Warp Speed, the American government’s vaccine task force, which backed the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. It is just astonishing that the world was in a position to roll out highly effective Covid-19 vaccines in December, and much of the credit for that goes to Slaoui. Worth a listen, not least for one of the clearest explanations of mRNA vaccines that I’ve come across.

  • Experts have saved us from the worst of this pandemic and at the same time the last year has been an education in the limits of expert opinion. In October 2019 a group of public health experts ranked countries in terms of preparedness for a pandemic. It turns out that the more “prepared” a country was, according to that index, the more deaths per head of population it suffered from Covid-19.

  • The backstory to that brilliant ITV News report on the Capitol riot, courtesy of the BBC.

  • “The failure mode of right-wing is kook. The failure mode of left-wing is puritan.”

  • Britain’s vaccine juggernaut continues to gather speed. I think once this starts to have a serious impact - March/April - we’ll be surprised at how fast things move, just as we were unpleasantly surprised in the other direction. Some good news from Israel on real world vaccine efficacy.

  • This historian Tony Judt was fiercely dedicated to the craft of writing - what a system he had (I haven’t read him, now I want to!).

  • There are so many thought terminating clichés around right now.

  • Werner Herzog on why he hates chickens.

EXTRA TIME
I am a sucker for podcasts that analyse pop songs in painstaking detail and one of my favourites is Strong Songs, by Kirk Hamilton. In this brilliant episode he turns the microscope on Kiss by Prince. You can read about the backstory of Kiss here. It started out as an acoustic folk song (seriously). Prince gave it away to a band from his stable called Mazarati, who funked it up with the help of producer David Z. When Prince heard the result, he took the song back, and turned into his masterpiece. What a track. I’ve always loved its stark, minimalist feel but I hadn’t realised until now that there is no bass in it. This is insane. The bass is a component of nearly all pop songs and is especially important to funk songs. Prince’s decision to dispense with it is the kind of thing that marks out a genius from an artisan. We can recognise it as a masterstroke in hindsight but his record company was convinced the song was too weird to succeed; they only agreed to its release because Prince insisted. It made me wonder about other examples of an artist or innovator making a breakthrough by removing some component previously thought to be essential to the form - Tracey Emin’s nude without the nude, John Cage’s piece for solo piano without a piano part, Steve Jobs removing the keyboard from a mobile phone, Dyson removing the bag from the vacuum cleaner, Guardiola fielding a team without a striker. One of Brian Eno’s oblique strategies for creativity is “simple subtraction”.

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AND FINALLY
Julia Galef’s podcast, Rationally Speaking, has been such essential listening since it returned from hiatus a few months ago that I can’t stop recommending it. This episode (transcript available) concerns the recent shift in racial politics (at least among elites) away from Martin Luther King’s principle of colour blindness - that the colour of a person’s skin is ultimately unimportant, something to transcend - and towards the idea of racial consciousness, which insists on race and racism as central and inescapable facts of life. Julia’s conversation partner is Coleman Hughes, a young black intellectual who is sceptical this shift represents progress. I promise that wherever you come down on the issue you’ll find the discussion illuminating. Both participants have the rare skill of characterising concepts and positions fairly whether or not they agree with them. Personally I think MLK was a superior thinker to those who see themselves as having moved on from him - just look at the fusion of philosophy, psychological insight and political smarts embedded in this document. It was, of course, his birthday earlier this month. I’m going to leave you with what is - trust me - one of the most astonishing and moving stories you’ll ever hear. It takes a little over four minutes.