There’s no entitlement like celebrity entitlement.
It can make a man who throws a football very far and very accurately believe that he knows better than deeply learned scientists about viruses and vaccines. It can make a television doctor who dabbles in dubious remedies consider a bid to represent Pennsylvania in the United States Senate, though he has no proven aptitude for politics and no significant tether to the state.
I speak of Aaron Rodgers, the glorious quarterback, and Mehmet Oz, the curious hack. They demonstrate that in these fame-mad times of ours, celebrity isn’t just a currency, with which almost anything can be bought. It’s a kind of spell, endowing some of its possessors with a sense of omnipotence. Treated like gods, they start to act that way.
Let’s take Oz first, as the news about him is fresher. The Washington Free Beacon reported on Tuesday that he had assembled a team, taken preliminary steps and was poised to jump into the 2022 race in Pennsylvania for the seat that Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican, is vacating. Oz or no Oz, this contest will attract gobs of money and attention: Pennsylvania is a swing state in which either a Republican or a Democrat could win, potentially determining which party controls the Senate.
Oz’s roots there? Well, the “Cleveland-born, Delaware-raised and New Jersey-based” physician-cum-performer did graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, “where he earned both medical and business degrees in the 1980s,” Eliana Johnson wrote in the Free Beacon. His political bona fides are similarly questionable. His ambition is not.
Nor is his medical background, his initially sturdy grounding in science. That’s why I said “curious” — he himself lit the bonfire that incinerated his credibility. He was once a nationally renowned cardiothoracic surgeon who routinely did lung transplants and open-heart surgeries, one of which I watched, standing just a few feet away from him, droplets of blood speckling my notebook.
But his scattered television appearances begot a daily television show and all manner of ratings-minded contortions, to a point where he was repeatedly and rightly castigated by colleagues in the medical community — and was hauled before a Senate panel — for making unfounded miracle-cure claims about diets, supplements and such. In 2016, he let Donald Trump use his show to crow, unchallenged, about his nonpareil physical fitness. Almost four years later, when the pandemic dawned, Oz became a fixture on Fox News, where he touted hydroxychloroquine as a potential wonder drug for treating Covid-19.
He said and did whatever brought him the brightest spotlight. Just what we need more of in public office.
Rodgers strikes me as different — not an operator ravenous for attention but an autodidact in thrall to his own thoughts. The bridge between him and Oz — a bridge paved with their celebrity — is the permission they grant themselves to behave as they wish.
Rodgers didn’t just make the irresponsible choice not to be vaccinated, although nearly 95 percent of his fellow players in the National Football League were doing the right thing; he also misled those players, calling himself “immunized.” And he ditched masks in situations where he wasn’t supposed to, exempting himself from rules that lesser mortals obeyed.
When he tested positive for the coronavirus and was called out and sidelined, he took a defiant tack, disseminating misinformation about vaccines in the service of promulgating his own special medical insights.
Many vaccine holdouts love to rail against what they see as the arrogance of the so-called establishment or elites. But what of the arrogance of people who put their own intuition above others’ erudition, who come late to the game but proclaim that they alone know the true score? Where’s the humility in that?
Before all this, Rodgers auditioned to be the host of “Jeopardy!,” which exalts concrete information, hard facts. Apparently, no one investigated his actual attachment to those.
Know who else got a “Jeopardy!” trial run? Oz. Many fans of the show publicly vented outrage about that, citing Oz’s rebukes from, and disfavor among, other physicians. Who was he to preside in this realm?
A celebrity, that’s who.
For the Love of Sentences
Once or twice in the past, I’ve stretched the definition of “sentences” and included an especially clever headline. This week, I’ll begin with one, from The Washington Post: “Avocado glut leaves Australian farmers crushed as prices hit guac bottom.” (Thanks to Elliot Slotnick of Worthington, Ohio, for nominating this.)
The Post was a trove of recent nominations, including this snippet from M. Carrie Allan’s appraisal of the new Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails, edited by David Wondrich and Noah Rothbaum: “If ‘Imbibe!,’ Wondrich’s 2007 cocktail book and biography of bartender Jerry Thomas, didn’t officially father modern drinks writing, it at least uncled it.” (Sherman Hesselgrave, Vancouver, Wash.)
And this commentary on Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia governor’s race by Ron Charles: “Throughout the campaign Youngkin promised to ban critical race theory in schools, even though critical race theory is not taught in Virginia schools. It’s as if Youngkin won by pledging to serve only gluten-free apples in the cafeteria.” (Karen Roberts, Collegeville, Pa.)
And this take, by Chelsea Janes and two of her Post colleagues, on Dansby Swanson’s big moment in Game 4 of the World Series: “Swanson hadn’t homered since Sept. 1 — nearly two months. Droughts don’t matter much this time of year, when one swing can flush a stadium’s worth of memories into oblivion and replace them with new ones.” (Bruce Bobick, Carrollton, Ga.)
Coming home to The Times, here’s Chris Bachelder, reviewing the new novel “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles: “Many novels this size are telescopes, but this big book is a microscope, focused on a small sample of a vast whole. Towles has snipped off a minuscule strand of existence — 10 wayward days — and when we look through his lens we see that this brief interstice teems with stories, grand as legends.” (Diana Castle, Victoria, British Columbia)
Here’s Wm. Ferguson, describing a moment of frustration in an exhilarating bike ride through New York State: “But we got off to a slow start when we realized that the bolt securing my son’s pannier rack had sheared right off. It is truly amazing what you can achieve with a full roll of electrical tape and 45 minutes of profanity.” (Stacey Somppi, Cottonwood, Ariz.)
Here’s David Hajdu, reviewing the book “The Lyrics,” by Paul McCartney: “To McCartney, a dark view of humanity is a failing and must be a mark of suffering, rather than an attribute of thought.” (Ruth Appleby, Santa Cruz, Calif.)
And here’s Dwight Garner, reviewing “Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941-1995,” edited by Anna von Planta: “By day Highsmith pegged away at her writing. By night she pegged away at her gin.” (Mohamed Ellozy, Brookline, Mass.) Dwight’s whole review is mesmerizing, in large part because Highsmith — and her approach to living — were. Treat yourself to it.
On IndieWire, David Ehrlich’s rave review of the new Jane Campion movie “The Power of the Dog,” a western, specifically praised Benedict Cumberbatch’s lead performance by noting how Cumberbatch “knots his default sarcasm into a lasso of constricted menace.”
Finally, an article in The Financial Times noted that Peter Atwater of Financial Insyghts was “having a lot of fun” analyzing what he believed to be “an equity bubble” and had written: “What we are now witnessing might best be labeled ‘Tarantino Markets.’ In one room we’ve got stocks like Peloton, Zillow and Penn Gaming getting shot, and in another room, investors are snorting call options like it’s cocaine.” (Steve DeCherney, Chapel Hill, N.C.)
To nominate favorite bits of writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here, and please include your name and place of residence.
What I’m Reading (and Listening to — and Plan to Read)
A recent episode of a podcast that I’m fond of, “Ideas,” hosted by Nahlah Ayed, showcased excerpts from conversations about animal intelligence at the Aspen Ideas Festival. The first part is about dogs, the second part about birds — mainly, crows. Both parts are illuminating, funny and altogether riveting, at least if you have any interest at all in the brains of the beasts among us. Or if you just want to know what your beagle might really be thinking when she licks your face.
Three people I admire are just out with books of admirable focus:
Peter Staley, whose contributions to AIDS activism in the 1980s and ’90s were titanic, recalls those days and more in “Never Silent,” a memoir that Kirkus called a “gripping, moving text that deserves a wide readership.”
Kate Bowler, who’s a colleague of mine at Duke University, has followed her 2018 best seller “Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved)” with “No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear), which Publishers Weekly called a “breathtaking narrative.”
Kirsten Powers, familiar to many of you from her commentary on CNN, is pushing back at the nastiness of our political debates with “Saving Grace: Speak Your Truth, Stay Centered, and Learn to Coexist With People Who Drive You Nuts,” which she discussed recently during this segment of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC.
This New Yorker article by Alex Ross on the singer Marian Anderson is chockablock with bits of cultural history that were new to me and with enough eloquent observations about music in general, and her music in particular, to fill a whole “For the Love of Sentences” section. Superbly done.
After chatting with Gabriel Rosenberg, a fellow Duke professor, at a recent dinner, I checked out, and had a good time with, his “Strong Paw of Reason” Substack posts. He encouraged me to read the food-related stuff but — surprise, surprise — I dwelled on this doggy reverie.
On a Personal Note
Last week I mentioned how supportive of gay people the advice columnist Abigail Van Buren, a.k.a. Dear Abby, was, and I directed readers to an interview with her that the journalist Eric Marcus had done. One reader, Kenneth Monteiro, of Wassaic, N.Y., wrote to ask me why I hadn’t included one of the best bits of that interview.
The answer? Because I’m a dolt and I forgot to! And because, well, weekly newsletter production equals a weakened newsletter producer. If journalism is the first rough draft of history, newsletters are just plain rough.
But they leave room for amends.
So, the bit I doltishly omitted: Abby recalled one of her advice columns from 1972. It featured a letter from a reader who was upset that two men — apparently, a gay couple — had bought and taken up residence in the house across the street.
“Abby,” the reader wrote, “these weirdos are wrecking our property values! How can we improve the quality of this once-respectable neighborhood?”
“You could move,” Abby responded.
I share that mostly because it’s priceless. But it also made me think about the art of the put-down — and possibly the lost art of the put-down.
Discourse-wise, disparagement-wise, we live in coarse, cruel times. Twitter is Exhibit A, and while most people spend little to no time there, it’s nonetheless symptomatic, emblematic, other -atics that don’t come to mind right now. It’s bloated with fury and starved of finesse. Therein lies a commentary on our waning civility, our fugitive grace.
There are hashtag-free, profanity-purged ways of registering your disagreement with people and venting your disappointment in them, but the instantaneousness of social-media posts, fired off with itchy trigger fingers, doesn’t encourage restraint. Where Dear Abby suggested, “move,” someone on Twitter might just shout, “Homophobe!”
Which is more effective?
I trawled the internet for elegant put-downs past. Of course Dorothy Parker popped up, including this crack — the circumstances, accuracy and precise wording of which have been questioned — about a performance given by Katharine Hepburn: “She ran the whole gamut of emotions, from A to B.”
And this supposed barb by Ludwig van Beethoven, regarding another composer’s work: “I like your opera. I think I will set it to music.” (I found it on this very debatable list of the “greatest insults in history.”)
When a verbal slap is unavoidable or even essential — to take someone to task, to right someone’s course, to illuminate an important truth — why not try to make it artful, too? Abby had plenty of art in her.
Another advice columnist, Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, also has plenty. While the following snippet isn’t exactly a put-down and is thus a digression of sorts, it does fall into the category of arch counsel to someone grappling with gay people, so I’ll end with it (and I thank Jan Jessup, of Wilmington, Del., for reminding me of it):
Dear Miss Manners, What am I supposed to say when I am introduced to a homosexual ‘couple’
Gentle Reader, “How do you do?” “How do you do?”