Tough Talk

The doctor and the waitress, the closing of the American mind, and the artist inside an icon.

Frank Sinatra with the Count Basie band, 1965, John Dominis/LIFE.


This is quite a thread, from an American doctor. She recounts, in 18 tweets, a conversation she had with a waitress reluctant to take the Covid vaccine. Both doctor and waitress are black. I’m always slightly wary of reported conversations that feature perfectly novelistic dialogue but this account is so perceptive that I choose to believe in it. Plus, conveniently enough for me, it’s a richly revealing example of good disagreement.

The doctor asks the waitress if she’s getting the vaccine, the waitress says no. What happens next is important: they talk about something else. They talk about the weather, about setting up the tables outside, about how nice it is to see each other again (the doctor is a regular). A mistake we often make in disagreements is getting to the disagreement too hastily. One of the “rules of productive argument” in CONFLICTED is “First, connect”: first establish that you have a connection that is deeper or wider than the thing on which you are disagreeing, then get into it. Doctor and waitress do that in a few lines.

Then the doctor asks her to say more about the vaccine situation, and the waitress explains that she feels as if she’s in a “tug of war”. On one side, she hears experts telling her to take it; on the other there are people telling her it’s dangerous (“If I get more more video telling me about how bad this vaccine is I’mma lose it.”)

The revelation, to the doctor, is that vaccine resisters are stuck between two equally compelling campaigns of persuasion. What should you do in that situation? Press your case even harder? Not necessarily. One of the other rules in my book is “let go of the rope”, a phrase I borrowed from the interrogation expert Laurence Alison. When someone feels that they’re being pressured to comply, their instinct is to resist, even when that means shutting themselves down to rational persuasion. You can sidestep the power struggle by showing you’re more interested in them as people than in prosecuting your case.

That’s what the doctor does. She levels the conversational pitch: instead of assuming the position of an expert-who-must-explain, she asks the waitress for her guidance on how to talk about vaccines. And the waitress gives her excellent advice. Don’t dismiss the other side of the argument as beneath you. Don’t act like your word is gospel. In the waitress’s words, just “ease up…let me listen and think.”

A very US-focused Ruffian this week which is appropriate since CONFLICTED had its American publication on Tuesday. It already has a list of stellar endorsements and new ones arrived this week. Malcolm Gladwell calls it “Beautifully argued. Desperately needed.” Charles Duhigg and Oliver Burkeman also say nice things. I will no longer be asking you to pre-order; now I’d just love you to order (US or UK).

I found this long and admittedly quite dense essay on the study of American history interesting in its own right and it also has a wider resonance. It’s called “the new cult of consensus” and it’s by James Oakes. It takes the form of an appreciation of the late historian Judith Steiner, who wrote about class conflict within the African-American community.

Oakes discusses two approaches to his field, “conflict history” and “consensus history”. In “conflict history”, historians are interested in how the clash of opposing social, economic and ideological forces produce change. In “consensus history” historians look back and see essentially one causal force in history, the ramifications of which work themselves out over time.

In the early twentieth century, a form of consensus history dominated, as historians competed to narrate America’s smooth and inexorable progress towards greater liberty and democracy. During the conflict-ridden 1960s, a new generation of historians came along and said actually, our history is of full of violence and backward steps, as one side or another assert their interests. History doesn’t unfold like a morality tale.

But now, Oakes argues, we’re seeing the rise of a new kind of consensus history, in which everything is explained by the determination of white Americans to assert their racial supremacy. These historians, he says, are imposing another simplistic morality tale on the complexity of history. On their terms, whatever the historical question, the answer is always white racism, and white racism always wins. That leaves them unable to explain the Civil War, except as a terrible accident - after all, why would whites go to war against slavery? (My summary is crude - if you’re interested, read the whole thing.)


  • This brilliant piece about online communication is ten years old but still perfectly relevant. It’s by the tech commentator Paul Ford, who argues that “the fundamental question of the web” and the question that now drives everything from politics to commerce, is this: “Why wasn’t I consulted?”.

  • I came across that link in the midst of this very smart (& very long) post on the deep meaning of TikTok, by Eugene Wei, a top software engineer who’s also, annoyingly, a really good writer. It’s not just about TikTok but the nature of creativity on the internet.

  • Interesting study which finds that witch trials were basically a form of advertising used by Catholics and Protestants as they battled for market share.

  • Some critical thinking about “critical thinking”.

  • A(nother) superb essay by Tomiwa Owolade, on ‘cancel culture’ which transcends clichés on both sides.

  • Lovely piece by Jude Rogers on her love for REM.

  • Poem about gardening and life by Louise Glück.

  • Quote of the week. James Baldwin, from an essay on Shakespeare: “That is why he is called a poet. And his responsibility, which is also his joy and his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle...". Isn’t that incredible? To defeat all labels and complicate all battles. That might be my personal credo, or at least the thing I value most in writing.


Over at Open Culture there’s a clip of Frank Sinatra in the recording studio, from 1965. Inside every icon there is a great artist struggling to be recognised again; when we think of Sinatra we think of Rat Packs and bourbon and we forget what an insanely great singer he was. As Pete Paphides remarks, Sinatra was an obsessive, and in this footage of him singing in the studio you get a close-up on the fruits of his obsession.

The song, It Was a Very Good Year, is beautiful and elegiac, and the orchestral arrangement, by Gordon Jenkins, is a masterpiece (is it ridiculous to hear Four Last Songs in those trilling flutes?). Sinatra was fifty when he recorded it. He was already twice married and twice divorced. Vocally and commercially, he was over the hill, though only just. The leisurely progress of a great artist down from the peak, as the light shifts and deepens, often provides some of the most exquisite moments of the journey (think Dylan, Not Dark Yet). The involuntary quaver that was present in Sinatra’s voice by this stage carried a resonance of its own.

The song was perfect for him at this stage of his life, and in the clip you can see him putting everything he has known and felt into it, applying all that assiduously acquired artistry to the conveyance of emotion - the thing at which he was peerless. The long, voluptuous fall he achieves on ‘came’ - “And it came undone…” - is so full of remembered pleasure and regret it’s almost painful.

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Hey wait I don’t know if I already said this but you really should order CONFLICTED.