Matthew Walther wrote an article (archive) for The Week. First, I want to say, I’m happy to see someone else who doesn’t like Ben Sasse. It’s rare to find. Unfortunately, this article fails to deliver.
I want to make two distinct critiques, stylistic and substantive. Stylistically, I think this article is poorly written. Here’s a list of some of the words Mr. Walther uses paean, pedant, solecism, lachrymose, untrammeled, neoliberal atomization, dolefully, etc.
I contend that Mr. Walther included these words to try to convince us he’s smart. Because, he’s writing about Ben Sasse, who happens to be a very smart man. Of course, Mr. Walther uses quotation makers around the word intellectual. To show us that Senator Sasse isn’t actually intellectual. But, moving onto the substance of the article…
In the last year and a half, Sasse has made a career branding himself as “the last honest man in the GOP,” which is journalism code for someone who makes a lot of hay about Trump’s character. . .
Have you ever heard the brand “the last honest man in the GOP”? Because, I hadn’t. So, I went to the search engines. It appears in one Politico article (archive), once, a week ago. If his career is branding himself “the last honest man in the GOP,” he’s failed, miserably.
Because Trump is actually just governing like a non-tweed-wearing version of Sasse himself, right down to his bombing of Syria, Sasse is allowed to continue his world-weary posturing. But really he is just a glorified tone-policer. Don’t believe me? Try to find a single criticism of the president from Sasse that is substantive rather than stylistic (appropriately cautious-sounding procedural hang-ups about the nonsense Flynn scandal don’t count).
What does this even mean? Does Sasse even wear tweed? How does Mr. Walther know how Senator Sasse would govern? Presumably, because Sasse hasn’t been hard enough on Trump. There are two things to prove: first, is Trump doing bad things (the only example is the bombing of Syria, which is a highly complex issue)? And, second, does Senator Sasse support them? Senator Sasse is a very measured person. Of course he’s made no strong substantive statements. That would ruin his future Presidential run.
But back to the book. I spend a lot of time with books that most people would find hard going at best. My favorite genre of literature is ecclesiastical history: Cardinal Newman’s Arians of the Fourth Century has hardly left my bedside in three years. I once read the entire Chambers Dictionary from cover to cover. So when I pan Sasse’s book as the most boring I’ve read, I’d like to think that I’m speaking from a position of some authority.
Here Mr. Walther is completely right. The book is the most boring he’s ever read. Book interest is subjective, which is the problem with this paragraph. He claims to have authority on boring books by talking about books in his favorite genre. What effect is that meant to have?
In a rant about pedantry (and the misuse of the word perplexed), Mr. Walther states:
Embarrassingly for a self-described “historian” (the kind who did his Yale dissertation on Reagan) and would-be pedant
. . .
the verb inversion suggests that he has spent more time reading 19th-century novels than listening to conversations
So, just so we’re clear. Senator Sasse is a faux historian who spends his time reading 19th century novels. Oh no, he’s not a historian he reads too much history. What? It’s also worth noting Senator Sasse has a Ph.D in history from Yale. Some people might think that comes with some qualifications.
So, Mr. Walther contends that Senator Sasse is too much of a pedant who makes mistakes, a historian who reads too many historical books, and someone who can’t communicate with people. All this from someone who writes lines like “for whom the answer to whether banks should be allowed to increase overdraft fees is to be found in the pages of Tocqueville.” Please, forgive me for my skepticism.
He concludes with this line:
All of which is to say that at the very least Republicans like Sasse need to start learning how to talk to normal people who are not Constitution fetishists or even middle class. Hint: The best response to a disgusting joke about the n-word is not to tweet about how you are a “1st Amendment Absolutist.”
Of course, there were four tweets. Perhaps the full context sounds better than these 3 quoted words.
Just a note: I think it’s essential to include quotes when talking about someone else’s work. By their nature, quotes must be removed from their context. However, when characterizing them, it’s essential to consider the original context. I try to hold myself to that standard. And, you can always check the original work. I think Mr. Walther should also try to achieve that standard.