Honorifics and Beyond

One of the perks of having a blog is the occasional opportunity to vent on matters of personal pique.  You have your own pet peeves; you don’t need mine; feel free to pass this post by.

On May 16, Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Emma Tucker advised the Journal’s readers:

“The Wall Street Journal is eliminating the routine use of honorifics, or courtesy titles, in its news pages ….

[T]he Journal has been one of the few news organizations to continue to use the titles, under our long-held belief that Mr., Ms. and so forth help us to maintain a polite tone. However, the trend among almost all news organizations and magazines has been to go without, as editors have concluded that the titles in news articles are becoming a vestige of a more-formal past, and that the flood of Mr., Ms., Mx. or Mrs. in sentences can slow down readers’ enjoyment of our writing.

For years, we weighed the tradition of using those titles against the need to be attuned to a more modern audience. In the end, we decided that dropping those titles is more in line with the way people communicate. It puts everyone on a more-equal footing and will help make our writing livelier and more approachable.”

As Ms. Tucker indicated, the Journal ceased using honorifics in its news pages on May 18.  Since that time, when one of its news articles alludes to the President of the United States, the initial reference identifies him as “President Joe Biden,” but thereafter, Mr. Biden is merely called, “Biden.”

What Ms. Tucker and her team apparently view as an impediment to reader enjoyment, I consider an enhancement.  What they view as facilitating reader acceptance, I consider a disappointing acquiescence.  What they view as “more-equal,” “livelier,” and “approachable,” I consider a resort to a lower common denominator.  While they consider honorifics to have maintained a “polite tone,” I consider them to maintain a respectful tone – not the same.  While acknowledging that big time journalism must be financially viable if it is to survive, I would suggest that given the demographics of its readership, the Journal is merely bowing to a cruder culture.

While Ms. Tucker was careful to note that the Journal’s discontinuance of honorifics was limited to its news pages (the paper continues to use honorifics in its opinion pages, presumably seeking to maintain an elevated tone where the expression is more likely to incite passions), I would nonetheless maintain that decisions such as that which the Journal has made diminish the level of our discourse.

The manner in which we express ourselves is important.  Decorum counts.  The way one communicates has the power to elevate or diminish the substance of one’s message.  Language matters.  T.S. Eliot defined the man of letters as “the writer for whom his writing is primarily an art, who is as much concerned with style as with content; the understanding of whose writings, therefore, depends as much upon appreciation of style as upon comprehension of content.”  In the public arena, one thrills to the linguistic artistry of an Abraham Lincoln or a Winston Churchill.  I deplore our increasing use of shortcuts and slang.  While I obviously use emojis in these pages as a mechanism to ensure that all reading understand that I realize that what I spout is Noise – and those that know me are well aware that my casual conversation contains expression that would in olden days have had one’s mother reaching for a bar of soap — I most ardently believe that serious issues should be addressed in terms appropriate to their import.

I agree with Ms. Tucker that use of honorifics hearkens back to “a more-formal past.”  I would submit that we are the less for the abandonment of these and other such “vestiges.”  Obviously, language evolves; but there is a difference between purpose and sloppiness.  I am sympathetic to usages that have particular significance – for example, the use of the pronoun, “they,” to describe a transgender person; but I take issue with the use of the plural, “they,” as shorthand to allude to a single person that could be a man or woman (rather than referring to the person as, “s/he” or “him/her”). 

Although I am acutely aware – and sympathize with those readers who have ruefully recognized – that many of the notes in these pages would be significantly shorter if I did away with honorifics and other seeming anachronisms, I hopefully will never resort to that; I believe that the tone one uses when addressing vital issues demands better.  I believe that the only intentional omission of an honorific that occurs in these pages is for Adolf Hitler.  (I have in at least one instance referred to the Nazi leader as “Herr” Hitler; I’d seen in Mr. Churchill’s speeches that he had done so on a few occasions, and decided that if he had not felt the honorific entirely inappropriate, I could employ it at least in the context of a particular post.)  I am close to omitting any honorific for Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Despite my deepest antipathy for former President Donald Trump’s illiberal inclinations and actions, his honorific is safe on this site given his standing as a former president and fellow American – unless he is someday convicted of seditious conspiracy.

As I said:  a venting of personal pique.  Am I a stodgy relic?  Of course.  But you already knew that. 😉

On Memorial Day

This weekend, our city of Madison, WI, hosts its annual Brat Fest, which its organizers tout as the World’s Largest Brat Fest, includes live music, and features such activities as Take Your Brat to Work Day.

When I first started coming to Wisconsin over 50 years ago – having been raised in the Chicago area by transplanted New Yorkers — I was puzzled by signs across the Dairy State that seemed to indicate that Wisconsinites, apparently unbeknownst to the rest of the country, were engaging – indeed, reveling – in the sale and consumption of unruly children; and that the rowdy tots tasted even better when coated in mustard and sauerkraut, washed down with a stein of beer.

I have since become acclimated – although I’m still not partial to sauerkraut.  That’s going to take at least another 50 years 🙂 .

TLOML and I will be blessed to able to spend this Memorial Day Weekend in the company of family.  We hope that you will be able to enjoy the Holiday, which at least in the frosty north of the country marks the unofficial start of summer, in the manner you prefer.  At the same time, may we each give a moment to remember the sacrifices of the men and women we have marked this day to honor – those who throughout our history have given, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, “the last full measure of devotion,” but also those who came home but have ever after borne the physical and emotional scars of battle.

On the Role of Journalism: a Postscript

In a note this past February, I stated, “I entirely reject the notion that the standard of [journalistic] objectivity for collection and dissemination of facts should in any way vary according to a reporter’s gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, or other attribute.  … [W]hat is vital is that journalists, as [New York Times Columnist Bret] Stephens puts it, ‘provid[e] the public with the raw materials it needs to shape intelligent opinion and effective policy.’  That’s all, and that’s enough.  After journalists have fulfilled their responsibility – a sacred one in a democracy – it is thereafter up to our people, for good or ill, to form their own conclusions.”

On May 15th, New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger published an essay in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), entitled, “Journalism’s Essential Value,” in which he addresses the philosophical debate regarding the concept of objectivity currently occurring in some quarters of professional journalism.  Mr. Sulzberger – whose forebears established the Times as we know it and have maintained its standing for over a century – states in part:

“Independence is the increasingly contested journalistic commitment to following facts wherever they lead. It places the truth—and the search for it with an open yet skeptical mind—above all else. … [I]n this hyperpolarized era, independent journalism and the sometimes counterintuitive values that animate it have become a radical pursuit.

Independence asks reporters to adopt a posture of searching, rather than knowing. It demands that we reflect the world as it is, not the world as we may wish it to be. It requires journalists to be willing to exonerate someone deemed a villain or interrogate someone regarded as a hero. It insists on sharing what we learn—fully and fairly—regardless of whom it may upset or what the political consequences might be. Independence calls for plainly stating the facts, even if they appear to favor one side of a dispute. And it calls for carefully conveying ambiguity and debate in the more frequent cases where the facts are unclear or their interpretation is under reasonable dispute, letting readers grasp and process the uncertainty for themselves.

This approach, tacking as it does against the with-us-or-against-us certainty of this polarized moment, requires a steadfast, sometimes uncomfortable commitment to journalistic process over personal conviction. Independent journalism elevates values grounded in humility—fairness, impartiality, and (to use perhaps the most fraught and argued-over word in journalism) objectivity—as ideals to be pursued, even if they can never be perfectly achieved. And crucially, independent journalism roots itself to an underlying confidence in the public; it trusts that people deserve to know the full truth and ultimately can be relied upon to use it wisely.”

Although his piece is not short (even compared to my more than occasional long-windedness  😉 ), I would submit that it is well worth your time.  I tried to add a link here, but either due to CJR’s web protections or my technological ineptitude — almost certainly the latter — I couldn’t get the link to embed. Since I could access the essay although I do not subscribe to the CJR, I am hopeful that by entering the search, “Sulzberger” and “Columbia Journalism Review,” you will be able to reach it as well.

Pulitzer Prize Finalist

Earlier this week, the Pulitzer Prize Board named Washington Post reporter Terrence McCoy a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Explanatory Reporting for his series, “The Amazon Undone,” described by the Board as a “[S]weeping examination of the destruction of the Amazon, using rich data and images, that explores the conflicts between those people who see it as their birthright to exploit the area, those who seek to preserve indigenous communities and those desperate to protect the earth.”

This week, our favorite reporter has rightly provided credit and thanks to all of his associates at the Post who assisted him on the series, and in earning this distinction; it is therefore perhaps appropriate to note in these pages the skill, the effort, the research, and the courage of the reporter that were required to discover and describe the many struggles and conflicts inherent in the Amazon today.  His mother and I are prouder than could possibly be recorded here.  A link to the Pulitzer Prize site is below.  

Terrence McCoy of The Washington Post – The Pulitzer Prizes

Treason Doth Never Prosper

Yesterday, four members of the Proud Boys, including their leader, Enrique Tarrio, were found guilty of seditious conspiracy arising from their actions before and related to the riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, joining members of the Oath Keepers, including their founder, Stewart Rhodes, who have previously been found guilty of seditious conspiracy related to the insurrection.

I understand that a number of these defendants claimed as part of their defense that they were not guilty of sedition because they were called to action by former President Donald Trump.  Put aside the patent culpability of Mr. Trump; such obviously provides these traitors no excuse.  They are responsible for their own actions.  They forgot their English literature:

“Treason doth never prosper.” English poet John Harrington; Alcilia.

“Men at times are masters of their own fates; the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”  Cassius to Marcus Brutus; William Shakespeare; Julius Caesar

Those who cherish American democracy can draw some reassurance from these convictions.  Even so, while Mr. Trump and other MAGAs continue in their endeavors, we cannot let our guard down; but for the actions of former Vice President Mike Pence and a few others, the insurrection incited by Mr. Trump on January 6th might well have succeeded.  The threat to our way of life has not gone away.  When the thought of this note occurred to me, I was pretty sure of my Shakespeare, but looked up Mr. Harrington’s declaration to check my memory.  I found that I had actually only recalled part of it.  The rest constitutes a caution:

“Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason [Emphasis Added]”.

That said, today Joe Biden remains president and it’s a warm and sunny Friday in the Midwest. While we need to remain cognizant of Mr. Harrington’s vital warning, one might be excused from also embracing a more pleasant perspective for this early spring weekend.  If so, in addition to outdoor pursuits, one can contemplate the potpourri of television viewing available tomorrow:  commencing with an early champagne cocktail, toasting the coronation of King Charles III; then enjoying several Cherry Cokes with Warren Buffett throughout the day as CNBC – seemingly inordinately proudly, considering the promotion it has offered this week — broadcasts the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting; and watching the sun start to set with a Mint Julep as one witnesses the Kentucky Derby.

If the weather holds, we ourselves plan to stain a retaining wall.  We will celebrate any successful conclusion with the appropriate refresher – perhaps even a Schlitz  😉 . 

Stay well.   

The Circle of Life v. The Weight of Expectations: Oops!

I was mortified to realize that in the initial posted version of this note, in undue haste I had inexcusably misspelled “Encanto,” and at one place in the text had misspelled the name of the film’s lead character, Mirabel.  My place in the Circle of Life is clearly not as an editor of the Washington Post, the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal  ;).  These errors have been corrected.

The Circle of Life v. The Weight of Expectations

[Spoiler Alert:  this post addresses the plotlines of two animated classics of the Walt Disney Company.  If you are the one person on the globe who hasn’t seen and isn’t familiar with the storyline of The Lion King, but it’s still on your bucket list, or you haven’t seen Encanto, but intend to, exit the Noise NOW  🙂 ]. 

We met our youngest grandchild this past January, and not surprisingly, found that whether a birth occurs in the humblest of locales or in one of the world’s most storied cities, the regime is the same:  feeding, napping, diapering, and parental exhaustion.  The infant’s parents’ universe is reduced to … feeding, napping, diapering, and a sleep-deprived, semi-consciousness state.  (Fortunately, an infant’s grandparents, after helping during the day, are able to scurry back to their hotel for a good night’s sleep 😉 ).  At the same time, there is a lot of down time, during which weary minds have no space for deep discourse; we found this time best occupied by watching Disney animated classics.

I think we saw all of the Disney favorites from our kids’ day to the present during our ten-day visit.  I was surprised by what seemed to me a marked dichotomy in philosophy between Disney’s arguably greatest animated offering, The Lion King, and its 2021 – and extremely well-received – release, Encanto.  

As all who care are aware, The Lion King is the story of a lion prince, Simba, son of Mufasa, the king of the jungle, who upon his father’s death seeks to live a carefree life and avoid his responsibility to lead and safeguard the kingdom.  The film’s signature song is “The Circle of Life,” composed in part by Elton John and imprinted in the memory of all who have listened to popular music during the last 30 years.  The film begins with the following verses:

From the day we arrive on the planet
And, blinking, step into the sun
There’s more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There’s far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high
Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round

It’s the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
‘Til we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life
[Emphasis Added]

It was interesting to recall upon seeing the film after so many years that Mr. John did not do the vocal in the film.  His familiar recorded version is obviously similar, but excerpts are arguably grittier:

Some say eat or be eaten

Some say live and let live

But all are agreed

As they join the stampede

You should never take more than you give

In the circle of life

It’s the wheel of fortune

It’s the leap of faith

It’s the band of hope

Till we find our place

On the path unwinding

In the circle

The circle of life

Some of us fall by the wayside

And some of us soar to the stars

And some of us sail through our troubles

And some of us have to live with the scars

In the circle

The circle of life [Emphasis Added]

By the end of the film, Simba comes to recognize his destiny, routs the villains, and assumes his rightful place as guardian of the kingdom.

Twenty-seven years later, Disney released Encanto, a delightful film about the Madrigal family, each of whom – seemingly except for the charming main character, Mirabel – has a super power that s/he uses for the good of the family’s village.  The family’s most robust – literally – super power is that possessed by Mirabel’s super-strong sister, Luisa, who uses her strength to carry ponderous weights to keep the village functioning smoothly.  Luisa’s song in the film, “Surface Pressure,” is in part thus:

I’m the strong one, I’m not nervous
I’m as tough as the crust of the Earth is
I move mountains, I move churches
And I glow, ’cause I know what my worth is …

Under the surface
I feel berserk as a tightrope walker in a three-ring circus …

Under the surface
I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service …

Give it to your sister, your sister’s older
Give her all the heavy things we can’t shoulder
Who am I if I can’t run with the ball? …

Give it to your sister, your sister’s stronger
See if she can hang on a little longer
Who am I if I can’t carry it all? …

But wait, if I could shake the crushing weight of expectations
Would that free some room up for joy
Or relaxation, or simple pleasure?
Instead, we measure this growing pressure
Keeps growing, keep going
‘Cause all we know is

Pressure like a drip, drip, drip that’ll never stop
Pressure that’ll tip, tip, tip ’til you just go pop …

Through what becomes apparent during the course of the film are Mirabel’s super powers – her intuition and caring – she sees that despite her family’s efforts, their village is nonetheless literally cracking apart.  She ultimately leads the members of her family to see that they are more than just their powers, more than their responsibilities in supporting their family and the village; and at the end they and the community flourish as a result of that realization.

Since we are obviously all more than the roles we play, and both films stress love of family, one might argue that the two films differ in emphasis rather than core message.  I would nonetheless suggest that the differences in philosophy are notable, and worthy of pondering.  I would submit that the moral that the Disney writers were seeking to impart in The Lion King is that each of us is one of many, that each of us has a role to perform for the whole, and that the good of the whole is what is paramount in the Circle of Life; while in Encanto, a different set of writers, separated by a generation, perhaps reflecting a shift in societal perspectives over these last three decades, seemingly posits that an individual’s contribution to the whole, while very important, is nonetheless less significant to a flourishing society than the fulfillment of oneself.

So consider:  is filling one’s place – sticking to the knitting, being a cog in the Circle of Life – sustaining, or confining?  Fulfilling, or limiting?  Ennobling, or demeaning?

My guess is that if the readers of this note were polled, it would be a pretty even split.  I find my own inclination best expressed by a great fictional character:

“[You have] the dignity of a man who has found his place and occupies it …”

  • Legendary detective Nero Wolfe, to his associate, Fred Durkin; Rex Stout:  Death of a Doxy

I read the Wolfe story (along with all the other Wolfe stories) about a thousand years ago.  I’ve always considered, “You’re a man who knows his place and keeps it,” to be among the finest tributes in all of literature.  As all reading this will readily conclude, I have greater affinity for the message of The Lion King.  That said, and no matter which of the two Disney-depicted philosophies you yourself are more comfortable with, I sincerely apologize for the fact that you’ll have Sir Elton singing “The Circle of Life” in your head all day today.  😉

Stay well.

On Tanking and Other Random April Notions: a Postscript

In a post earlier today, which envisioned what an imaginary “Mr. Republican” might be calculating about GOP prospects in the 2024 presidential election, I stated that such a figure might in part be thinking, ‘“Let Trump and [FOX News Commentator Tucker] Carlson take the party over the edge to what is currently looking like it will be a general election shellacking. …”’

While former President Donald Trump may take the Republican party over the edge in 2024, he may have to do it without Mr. Carlson’s help.  😉  As all who care – and probably some who don’t – are aware, Mr. Carlson was dismissed by Fox News today without so much as providing him a farewell broadcast.  If Washington Post accounts are to be credited, Mr. Carlson’s transgression in the eyes of his employer wasn’t his private indication that he “passionately” hates Mr. Trump, or any doubt he sowed about President Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral triumph, or his misrepresentations about the substance of the January 6th insurrection, or any of his countless other toxic discharges over the years … but because of his private criticisms of Fox News management — which would have included Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch – that were uncovered as part of the Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News.  Perhaps Mr. Carlson forgot who the boss was. 

One would have to assume that Mr. Carlson was, from an employment standpoint, a dead man at Fox either when Fox management learned of his criticisms or when the criticisms became public; and that Mr. Carlson’s dismissal awaited only the settlement of the Dominion-Fox suit, lest either the dismissal be touted by Dominion as an indication of Fox’ liability or because Fox feared that Mr. Carlson would testify against the network on Dominion’s behalf.  Although one can be confident that the mini-me Foxes, Newsmax and OAN, would love to put Mr. Carlson on their air as soon as possible, and while employment law was never my field, one has to assume that Mr. Carlson’s contract with Fox prohibits him from broadcasting on another network for a specified period.  He will presumably ultimately resurface, but without Fox’ trumpet.

Those of us who have been outraged and revolted by Mr. Carlson’s incendiary rhetoric over the years should be allowed a quiet smile at his abrupt dismissal; but the fact remains that Fox gave him the platform, just as in the past it provided its platform to, and then removed its platform from, Bill O’Reilly and others.  Recall that Mr. Carlson’s ratings were initially disappointing when he in effect replaced Mr. O’Reilly in the Fox prime time lineup, but his viewership and attendant stature grew as he amped up his toxicity.  It may take a bit, but by the summer of 2024, no matter where Mr. Carlson himself might then be, there will be a new version of Tucker Carlson in Fox News prime time.  It is what it is.


A close friend who has been part of the Colorado Search and Rescue operations for decades (although he is still a young man 🙂 ) recently called my attention to Rebecca Young’s short story, “Joan,” which won the Conger Beasley, Jr. Award for Non-Fiction in 2021 and recently appeared in New Letters Magazine.  He wrote, “What struck me when I first read this story was that it has always been difficult to illustrate what we do to those who have never done it. … In her nonfiction narrative, Becca successfully uses one of our [teaching] search scenarios to convey the desperate and often emotional circumstances of a real search party from a patient’s imagined perspective and absolutely from a search leader’s perspective.”  It’s excellent.

Our friend and I have discussed the Colorado Search and Rescue team’s efforts a number of times over the years, but I never “got it” until I read Ms. Young’s story about a search and rescue effort in Rocky Mountain National Park.  Her recital did cause me to recall an account in Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, in which Mr. Abbey, in the 1950s a park ranger in Utah’s Arches (now National Park), searched for a member of the public who had gotten lost in its desert terrain.

Without giving away Ms. Young’s story, I would suggest that the main takeaway for those of us – from our 20s to our 70s and beyond who will never participate in rescue operations but enjoy the wonders of our national and state parks and other wild areas — is:  Be Careful.  A couple of times since our retirement, TLOML and I – although any veteran outdoorsperson would consider our excursions terribly tame – have had to deal with uncomfortable uncertainty, although never actual danger.  Whether in the snowy Rockies, on the searing rock of the southwest, amid Everglades flora and fauna, or in Alaskan bear country, one needs to be aware of one’s limitations and surroundings.  Ms. Young notes at one point about her own experiences:  “So many times, I’ve been lucky instead of smart. … I can’t say why I’ve always come home from the mountains when others haven’t.  Often our choices were the same, the dead and me.”      

“Joan,” by Rebecca Young – New Letters

On Good Friday

Christians believe Jesus of Nazareth to be the Christ, the Son of God, who allowed himself to be sacrificed and who died for the good of all humankind.  Although Jews and Muslims – who are, currently, respectively in the midst of Passover and Ramadan — reject the notion of Jesus’ divinity, I understand that they nonetheless hold him a great prophet.  I will venture that the vast majority of those who are aware of Jesus and his teachings, even those who do not believe in a Supreme Being, consider him to have been a wise and good man.  Given the bitter discord in which we seem endlessly enmeshed within both our nation and our world, it seems appropriate on this day to record his succinct summation of his teachings.

He began to teach them, saying,

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.

Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Children of God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.’”

  • Matthew 5:  2 – 10