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Martin Luther King Jr. and Socrates

This week we celebrated the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., nearly a century after his birth in 1929. Dr. King was the most prominent leader of the civil rights movement, the force that did as much as anything in my lifetime to change America for the better. He was eloquent, far-sighted, and courageous, risking his life many times, as events tragically proved.

Bringing fundamental change to a nation is no easy thing, but King played a central role in doing just that. He was, to use a term coined by James MacGregor Burns and often cited in the scholarly literature, not merely a transactional leader; he was a transformational leader.

What makes a transformational leader? Wisdom, good judgment, the ability to communicate, foresight, courage, and decisiveness are all requisite. King displayed all those qualities as well as another fundamental characteristic: a sense of mission. In that, he recalls the great religious leaders of history, as he should, because King was a Christian pastor as well as a social activist. But since King spoke to a secular as well as a religious audience, I find myself thinking of a lay leader of the past: Socrates.

King shared something else with Socrates, a sense of mission.

Socrates was a philosopher and an important one. He is no less than one of the founders of the Western tradition of political and moral philosophy. But Socrates was also an active citizen of his country, Athens. He served as an infantryman in the hard fighting of the Peloponnesian War. He stood up in the Athenian Assembly, the democratic legislature in which Athenian citizens participated in one of history’s first direct democracies. There he opposed the clearly illegal motion to try a group of eight Athenian generals en masse, rather than to give them the individual trials that they were entitled to by Athenian law. Socrates courageously tried to stop the angry assemblymen from committing a miscarriage of justice. Unfortunately, he failed. The trial proceeded; the generals were convicted; and six of the eight were executed; the other two were abroad and escaped.

Half a dozen years later it was Socrates’ turn. He stood trial on the grounds of not believing in the gods of the city and of corrupting the young. These were outrageous charges. It was understood by many that they were a smokescreen. The real issue was the anti-democratic coup that followed Athens’ defeat in war. For about a year, a small group of oligarchs imposed a reign of terror on the city, until an armed rebellion by loyal democrats drove them from power and restored democracy. There followed history’s first known amnesty. Aside from the few most guilty parties, no one would be punished for supporting the oligarchy.

Socrates was not one of the oligarchs; indeed, he defied their order to arrest an innocent man. But he was friendly with several of the oligarchs. He was also a well-known critic of democracy. Nor did he play a part in the anti-oligarchic rebellion by the forces of democracy. The amnesty meant that Socrates could not be tried for any of this. The charges of “corrupting the youth” and “not believing in the gods of the city” were a way to get around the law and attack him even so.

The trial of Socrates took place in 399 BC. Semi-fictionalized accounts of his defense speech were written years later by his followers Plato and Xenophon. In his version, Plato makes clear that Socrates believed in his sense of a divine mission. Socrates issues these defiant words to the jury:

“Indeed, gentlemen of the jury, I am far from making a defense now on my own behalf, as might be thought, but on yours, to prevent you from wrongdoing by mistreating the god’s gift to you by condemning me; for if you kill me, you will not easily find another like me. I was attached to this city by the god—though it seems a ridiculous thing to say—as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly. It is to fulfill some such function that I believe the god has placed me in the city. I never cease to rouse each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long and everywhere I find myself in your company.” (Plato, Apology of Socrates)

Such defiance was not likely to win the jury’s favor, and it did not. Socrates was convicted and condemned to death. Once again, the philosopher stood his ground. Although he had the chance to flee abroad, he remained in prison. He had a responsibility, he said, to his country, for it had nurtured him and provided a bounty of good things. Socrates stayed in Athens and willingly took a dose of hemlock, a fatal poison. He died a martyr to philosophy.

Socrates’ explanation of his decision to stay in Athens, as portrayed in Plato’s Crito, is considered a classic text on civil disobedience. So is King’s famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail, which cites Socrates, among other examples from history. But King shared something else with Socrates, a sense of mission.

Bringing fundamental change to a nation is no easy thing, but King played a central role in doing just that.

We see this clearly in King’s eloquent “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. In it he speaks of his gratitude to God for allowing him to live in a difficult but inspiring period of history, a period of struggle but also of a human rights revolution. “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars,” King writes.  He goes on to suggest what activists should say to those who were doing them injustice:

“God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned.”

King was referring specifically to a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was speaking, but the words could apply to the civil rights movement generally.

King’s mighty speech ends on a striking note. He says that, although he would like to enjoy a long life, he wasn’t concerned about that now. “I have been to the mountaintop,” he says. Then he adds:

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

The date was April 3, 1968. Tragically, King was murdered a day later.

What makes a leader? The ability to see things that others do not. The capacity to communicate a vision to his followers. The courage to dare. And, in the case of Socrates and King, the conviction that they served a greater power, one for which they would make the supreme sacrifice.

Let’s hope that we have the wisdom to ensure that our leaders never again become martyrs.

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Ten Rules for Writers

“Every beginning is hard,” so the saying goes. Maybe that’s not true of the New Year, which most people ease into joyously, nervously, and often drunkenly. Or, if the saying is true, perhaps it refers only to hangovers, and here in the northern hemisphere, to cold weather, and everywhere to the difficulty of sticking to New-Year’s resolutions.

But the saying is certainly true if you are beginning to write a new book. That’s what I was doing during the holiday season this year. Classes over, so were my excuses, so I sat down at my desk and started. And false started. And started again.

Writing is frustrating and exhilarating. It’s dangerous, like handling explosives.

Writing is frustrating and exhilarating. It’s dangerous, like handling explosives. If you try to force it, the words may blow up in your face. If, by contrast, you handle the process with care, then the prose will finally start to pour out, with any bangs removed to a safe distance away.

As my chapter began to take shape, I reflected more than I usually do about the practice of writing. In the hope that my thoughts might be of interest, I’m sharing some of them here. I encourage you to write me with your own ideas about the art of writing or about creativity more generally.

Think of yourself on a beach or a mountain or breathing in the bracing air of a windy sea, a lighthouse looming offshore.

Ten Rules for Writers as you stare at the blank page or screen:

  1. Don’t get it right, get it written. It’s more important to start with something than to stare and stare at the page in search of perfection. Once you have something down on paper (more likely, on the screen), you’ll be able to reshape it or toss it out. Which is not a problem because:
  2. Writing is rewriting. Thanks to the late great William Zinnser for stating this clearly. See his wonderful book, On Writing Well. Few of us nail it at first go, so get out your mental red pencil and be prepared to edit and edit again. I miss the grand gesture, in the old days, of pulling a sheet of foolscap out of a massive Royal typewriter, crumpling it into a ball, and tossing it into the trash. Still, the cross-outs and line-throughs of Track Changes have a certain comforting rhythm to them.
  3. “De l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace!” “Be bold, bolder, and ever bolder,” as they said in the French Revolution. If you have something daring or even something outrageous to say, just say it. It may represent your heart’s desire. You can always use your head and rethink it later, and you probably will.
  4. Write the first part or the first chapter last. It’s best to begin in the middle. Chances are that you’ll have a good grasp of at least some of the material there. The opening, however, makes sense only after you’ve put all the pieces in order. For me, it’s usually the last thing that I write. Or, if I do sometimes start at the beginning, it’s only knowing that I’ll probably end up rewriting it from top to bottom.
  5. Don’t sleep on midnight inspiration. If you wake up with what seems like a brilliant idea at 2 a.m., don’t count on remembering it when you get up in the morning. Write it down then and there. Either keep a notebook/pen or smartphone on your bedside table or get up and write it down.
  6. Writing is reading. Nothing improves our writing more than reading great writers. Identify work that you admire or that intrigues you. Make time to read it as you write. If you’re as detail oriented as I am, you may keep a file of favorite sentences and paragraphs. Go back to it frequently and see if you can match their craftsmanship.
  7. Print it out. It’s amazing how much more you see in print than on the screen. Errors or infelicities that pass by us electronically will jump off the page when held in our hands.
  8. Everyone needs an editor. Eventually, your writing, we hope, will pass before the practiced eyes of a professional editor. If that’s not the case, or if it’s not going to happen for a while, send your work to a trusted friend or two, preferably another writer, but any intelligent reader will do. Feedback is invaluable. What may have seemed clear to you when you wrote it may make little sense to others. You won’t know that, of course, until another person reads it.
  9. Set a time limit. We all need to think things through, but if you’re like me, you run the risk of overthinking. Improve the situation by putting just a little pressure on yourself – but not too much: remember that dynamite. It’s amazing how quickly you can write something if the clock is ticking.
  10. Take a sabbatical. Write at least a little every day but leave one day of the week free from writing. Step away from your work and refresh your mind. Let your imagination wander. Think of yourself on a beach or a mountain or breathing in the bracing air of a windy sea, a lighthouse looming offshore. Be a writer, but be a person too.

Have fun. Writing is hard work, but it should also be joyous.

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Christmas 1944

In December 1944, my father was with his unit in a rest center in the town of Montecatini near Florence, a distance of 85 miles from the front. He was a Private First Class in the 350th Regiment of the 88th Division, U.S. Army. At the age of twenty, he had gone from being a college sophomore to a combat soldier. They called themselves the Blue Devils, but the 88th has also been dubbed the Draftee Division.

In spring 1944 the United States launched an experiment. For the first-time in history, it sent an all-draftee division into sustained combat. The place was Italy, the unit was the 88th Division. Aaron Strauss, my father, was one of the laboratory rats. He was an infantryman but not a rifleman, serving in a weapons platoon rather than a rifle company: a less romantic but perhaps more typical assignment and only somewhat less dangerous. Although he never came face-to-face with an enemy in battle, he was exposed daily to the enemy’s artillery barrages, which is what killed most of the Americans who died in Italy.

He hated the war but considered fighting it to have been among his proudest achievements. He never thought of himself as a veteran but would never want to trade places with someone who sat the war out. He fought in Rome, Volterra, and in the Apennine Mountains, where he saw men die, but his preferred vision of Italy in later life was of a tourist destination.

Neither a hero nor a protestor, Aaron typified the reality of the citizen-soldier: a quiet man who does his duty. He served as an antidote to the two misperceptions that dominate what Americans think about war today: that war is either good and romantic, like the Second World War, or bad, like Vietnam. The truth is that war is always bad but frequently moral nonetheless.

This is what Aaron discovered the moment the shooting started for him, outside a small town north of Naples. From May to December, 1944 he was in continual battle, from the heat of Campania to the cold of the mountains outside Bologna. The North Apennine Campaign of fall-winter was the worst, a brutal slog against the entrenched German defenses of the Gothic Line.

He hated the war but considered fighting it to have been among his proudest achievements.

The sources paint a picture of staggering losses. In September-October 1944, five thousand men in the 88th Division had been killed or wounded. From September 21 to October 3, the 350th Regiment alone lost 1420 men, forty per cent of its total, most of them at Monte Battaglia. That means a slaughter as bloody as that which lay ahead in Okinawa. And the casualties kept coming in the Apennine mountains in the winter.

Aaron remembered an occasion that fall when he was in a schoolhouse that was shelled and he was struck by fragments: not a serious wound. Earlier that year, in Tuscany, he and his unit were advancing through the fields on an ancient hill town, when an enemy shell landed at his feet. Fortunately for him (and for me), it was a dud.

No wonder my father started to think, towards the end of his time on the line, that he was going to die. My mother, Diane, once recalled how, in the early 1950s, Aaron took out a photo of the ten men in his squad and pointed out the ones who got killed or wounded — six or seven of them.

Cold, weary, worried by the continuing losses to enemy artillery or to disease, depressed by the endless war and the unconcerned folks at home, the American soldier in those days took what comfort he could in bars and brothels. One memoirist writes:

Groups of infantrymen would throng the red plush anterooms of the whorehouses, drinking bad cognac, often as not indifferent to the doubtful pleasures of going off for a mechanical quickie with one of the girls. (Douglas Allanbrook, See Naples. A Memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995, p. 215).

When Christmas came, or Chanukah, which fell in mid-December 1944, every soldier had reason to pray for victory and peace. A year later, all was quiet on the battlefields, but not without more months of obscene slaughter and misery.

Neither a hero nor a protestor, Aaron typified the reality of the citizen-soldier: a quiet man who does his duty.

My parents are gone now. After a rough start in the Depression and war, they went on to live great lives. And their children, grandchildren, and greatgrandchildren live even easier lives.

In many, many ways, we live in a better country than our ancestors. But our prosperity depends in no small part on the sacrifices of earlier generations. And in one way, we have to wonder if today’s Americans are better. If called to the heroic efforts of our forebears, would we be up to the job? Would we do our duty?

Something to ponder during what, I hope, are happy holidays for everyone.

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The Gift of the Magi

When I was young, I loved O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” I’m sure you know it. It’s the tale of a dirt-poor young couple long ago. One December 24, they each sacrifice their most precious possession to buy the other a Christmas present. Unbeknownst to one another, the wife cuts off her long, luxurious hair and sells it to a wig shop while the husband pawns his prize gold watch. Alas, she has bought him a platinum watch fob chain and he has bought her a set of tortoise-shell combs. Yet their mutual devotion symbolizes to the author the height of wisdom, equal to that of the wise men who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger.

Like most of us, I imagine, my fondest memories are of people, not of gifts. Family gatherings long ago at my grandparents’: I remember those like yesterday.  Holiday-season presents – not so much. But who would trade a red wagon or a baseball glove for the remembered smells of Grandma’s kitchen or the image of Grandpa’s smiling face and his hand waving good-bye as the elevator brought us downstairs from their apartment?

It’s always the people and their inner gifts that matter most. Two thoughts come to mind, one from the history books, the other from the synagogue.

In December 1941, no sooner had President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor than Prime Minister Winston Churchill invited himself to the White House – for Christmas. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was not amused as Churchill’s supposedly brief visit turned into a three-week stay (with side trips to Canada and Florida). The President squared it with her because he realized that Churchill had brought an invaluable gift – himself, and the lessons he had learned in over two years of war. No present from Bond Street, no Mayfair trinket could compare to the iron will and strategic acumen that Churchill brought along with his cigars, whisky, and penchant for all-nighters, three uninvited weeks of them. Together, he and Roosevelt built a friendship that paved the way to victory in the world war.

To turn to the synagogue, Judaism requires ten Jews – ten Jewish men, in Orthodox Judaism – for a quorum (minyan) for prayer. It’s not always easy to find ten to make the minyan. A rabbi I know told me that when he was growing up, his rabbi told him, “I don’t want your presents, I want your presence.”

Writing a check may be easy or painful, depending on one’s finances. Usually, though, it is easier than sacrificing one’s time. Yet time is the most valuable commodity. Again and again, life reminds us that the greatest gift is ourselves.

Merry Christmas to all my friends and readers who celebrate the holiday.

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The Godfather – The Political is Personal

Just when we thought we were out of The Godfather, the media dragged us back in. This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning 1972 movie, leading to commentary here, there, and everywhere. Another reminder of the film came with the sad news in July of the death of actor James Caan, who played Sonny, one of the key roles. Attention must be paid to such a movie, but let’s not forget the novel that the film was based on.

Mario Puzo published The Godfather in 1969. It spent 21 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. I’m going to praise the novel, gentle reader, but the work is not without its flaws.

The book is too long. There’s too much about the singer and actor, Johnny Fontaine, and about Lucy Mancini, the bridesmaid turned hotelier, who mourns her lost lover, Sonny, and finds happiness in the arms of a surgeon whose career hit a roadblock. There’s too much repetition of memorable phrases. No worries: Coppola stripped the novel down to essentials and made it more dramatic.

“There’s more to the story than the violence, the cunning, and the famous lines. The central theme is that the political is personal.”

Then there are the things in the book that grate on contemporary nerves. Puzo repeatedly describes various gangsters’ racism toward African-Americans. The sentiments may be true to the characters involved, especially considering the book’s setting in the 1940s, but nowadays we would expect the author to signal his dissent. Puzo repeatedly refers to loan sharks as shylocks; again, one might hope for a protest at the anti-Semitism. But the most egregious portrayal is that of women. They are either long-suffering, dupes, the victims of physical or sexual abuse, or voracious sex addicts. True, there’s a tough ex-wife or two, but they are minor characters. Rarely does a woman get to stand up to a man. There’s too much explicit sex in the novel for my fuddy-duddy taste, but Puzo set out to write a bestseller in the era of Airport and Valley of the Dolls, so the graphic writing is understandable. I don’t think that Puzo was racist, anti-Semitic or anti-woman. He was surely describing what he saw as the reality of the gangsters’ world, but today we would count on an author to push back.

Now for the praise. My teacher, the late Donald Kagan, used to say about the richness of The Godfather, “it’s Homeric.” Kagan had a dry sense of humor, and I never knew if he was joking. After re-reading the book twice this year, I think that if he wasn’t serious, he ought to have been. It’s not just that the book is full of detail or that it gives the rise and fall and rise of a gangster family an epic grandeur. It’s also that Puzo offers insight into men and power.

There’s more to the story than the violence, the cunning, and the famous lines. The book covers many subjects, but to me, the central theme is that the political is personal. This is not to be confused with the 1960s-1970s feminist rallying cry, “the personal is political,” a call to use government power to free women from the home and win equality at work.

“The political is personal” locates real power in the hands of men of iron will whose agents steal, injure, and kill – in a word, in the hands of gangsters. The government, itself corrupt, is manipulated by the criminals. They are brutes. The book has no lack of killing, from the murder of the neighborhood boss Don Fanucci by the title character, young Vito Corleone before he became the Godfather, to the slaughter, on now grownup Vito’s order, of a Hollywood big shot’s prize racehorse – his bloody head left in the man’s bed for him to discover as he woke up – to the massacre of the Don Vito’s eldest, Sonny, whose bullet-scarred corpse is uncovered on a gurney in the basement of a funeral parlor.

Yet the thieves of The Godfather are not without honor. Don Vito Corleone may be a murderer, but he lives by his own strict moral code. Its central pillar, aside from family, is friendship. “Friendship is everything,” he says. “Friendship is more than talent. It is more than government. It is almost the equal of family.” (Puzo, Mario. The Godfather: 50th Anniversary Edition, p. 41. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.) The Godfather’s definition of friendship does not exclude affection. A public embrace, an invitation to a man’s house for a cup of coffee or to his home office for a whisky or a glass of anisette – with the added gesture of standing up to greet a guest, that was part of friendship as well.

Vito Corleone valued the personal touch. Tommy Hagen, the Don’s consigliere, that is, his lawyer, pays attention when Johnny Fontaine takes the time to drive Hagen to LAX, after Hagen had flown out to see him on business. Hagen approves, musing: “The Don always taught that when a man was generous, he must show the generosity as personal.” (Puzo, Mario. The Godfather: 50th Anniversary Edition, p. 21. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

But friendship in the novel is hardly all smooth scotch and easy chairs. By “friendship” Don Vito also has something cold and pragmatic in mind, the mutual exchange of favors. It is understood that the man at the top comes first, and yet he owes something to the little guy. Whether fixing an immigration problem for his baker or protecting a widow from a rapacious landlord, Don Corleone considers the act a deposit in the favor bank, and yet he takes care of the matter, no matter how humble the recipient of his beneficence.

“In our era it’s easy to imagine that personal contact doesn’t matter. A dangerous illusion.”

The ancients would have nodded in agreement. Cicero writes, in his treatise, On Friendship, that the giving and receiving of favors, both getting and repaying, is inseparable from friendship (De Amicitia 8.26). He proceeds to a more elevated definition of friendship, which he considers a form of love, but Cicero doesn’t leave out the bottom line.

The ancients and the Corleones share pagan values. (Don Corleone is notably cynical about religion.) Puzo highlights this in the book’s penultimate scene (the movie’s last scene). Kay Adams was born the daughter of a Baptist minister in New Hampshire, but she ends up marrying Don Vito’s son Michael. Kay witnesses her husband’s transformation from U.S. Marine to his father’s homicidal successor. She observes in horror as his men greet Michael after he had successfully arranged a series of gangland murders. Puzo writes: ““Kay could see how Michael stood to receive their homage. He reminded her of statues in Rome, statues of those Roman emperors of antiquity, who, by divine right, held the power of life and death over their fellow men.” (Puzo, Mario. The Godfather: 50th Anniversary Edition (p. 586). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Heaven forbid that we emulate Puzo’s mafiosi in their pagan corruption and violence. Yet they have something to teach us. In our era of texts and tweets, Zoom and smartphones, it’s easy to imagine that personal contact doesn’t matter. A dangerous illusion. The most valuable thing that most of us have to give is our time. There is no substitute for showing up. Contracts matter, but don’t forget the value of a handshake. Or driving a visitor to the airport instead of using a car service.

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Split Infinitives

Experts make rules, but the people change a language. That’s the way the game has always been played. Take, for example, the case of the split infinitive. The infinitive is the “to” form of the verb, e.g.: to be, to go, to do. The rule is: don’t split the two words. Or rather, that was the rule. Nowadays it is violated so often that even the mavens are giving up.

Count me among the resisters.  It’s not just because I think that rules are rules (although I do). Nor is it just that I think that split infinitives are inelegant, although they are. My beef, rather, is with the word that comes between “to” and the rest of the verb: the adverb.

The adjective is your enemy, as I always tell student writers, and the adverb is its accomplice. Modifiers load up your writing, like a Christmas tree with too many ornaments. In most cases, we don’t need to modify a verb with an adverb. Instead, we can replace the verb with a better one.

“The adjective is your enemy, as I always tell student writers, and the adverb is its accomplice.”

For instance, instead of saying “to bravely state,” say “to defend.” Instead of “to strongly favor,” write “to love,” “to be a partisan of,” “to plant one’s flag in support of,” etc., depending on the context.

Sometimes the best way to deal with an adverb is not to replace it but to kill it. Take for example, a well-known case from the 1960s Star Trek. Writer Gene Rodenberry has Captain Kirk begin every episode by saying:

These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

The first two infinitives (“to explore,” “to seek”) are fine, but the third one is split (“to boldly go”). It would be more grammatical as “to go boldly,” or even as “boldly to go” – reminiscent of Hamlet’s divine if depressing phrasing about death, “’tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wished.”

But who needs boldly? “To go where no man has gone before” is strong enough. The boldness is obvious, unless you were thinking that the crew of the Starship Enterprise are a bunch of shleppers. Well, if you insist, how about “to explore, to seek out, to go where no bold man has gone before”? If you insist.

The bold don’t need to put a sign up; they let their deeds speak for themselves. Did Nathan Hale have to say, “I only regret that I have but one life to boldly give for my country?”

“Your infinitives have power. Unleash it!”

Infinitives are bold enough on their own. Shakespeare, for example, didn’t have to write in Hamlet: “To boldly be or not to be”; “To be or not to be” did the job nicely. Admittedly, boldness was not Hamlet’s defining quality, but it was just that for the hero Ulysses (that is, Odysseus). Tennyson famously gave Ulysses this line in his eponymous poem: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” No “boldly” there.

For another example of sixties pop culture, turn to the Broadway show, Man of La Mancha. In the show’s most famous song, Don Quixote begins, “To dream the impossible dream.” He follows with more than a half-dozen other infinitives, with not an adverb among them. No boldly, no hesitantly.

My advice, as is in the song, is “to run where the brave dare not go.” Your infinitives have power. Unleash it!


P.S. If you boldly go and seek split infinitives in my writing, I fear you’ll probably find them. Every professor needs to take a red pen to his own work.

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The Art of Being Number Two

The most important person in the world is the one you never see. He or she is the one who makes the magic happen but never on their own. Yet having the right Number Two is the key to being a great Number One.

Batman had Robin. Sherlock Holmes had Dr. Watson. Captain Kirk had Mr. Spock. Those are fictional examples (sorry, Trekkies, Star Trek really is fiction), but history offers many factual cases of indispensable Number Twos. The Roman emperor Augustus, for instance, had Agrippa. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had Willie Whitelaw. Frank Sinatra, so famous a singer that he was known simply as The Voice, had Nelson Riddle.

“Having the right Number Two is the key to being a great Number One.”

Good Number Two’s come in an endless variety of shapes and shades, but here are three models: Agrippa was the General. Whitelaw was the Whip. And Riddle was the Arranger.

The man who became Augustus – Octavian, as most historians call him during his earlier years – would never have reached supreme power without the help of his old boyhood friend. Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was no aristocrat, but he had a genius for command. Octavian did not, although he was brave enough to go into battle. An excellent general, Agrippa accepted a new assignment to build a fleet for Octavian. Agrippa oversaw the construction of a new naval base near Naples and a new fleet. Under Agrippa’s leadership, Octavian defeated the navy based in Sicily that threatened his control of Italy. But that was just the start.

With Agrippa’s help, Octavian faced his greatest challenge: Antony and Cleopatra. The Roman commander Mark Antony and his lover, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, commanded a massive fleet that was poised to invade Italy. Octavian responded by sending Agrippa with a sizeable flotilla to seize the enemy’s main supply base in Greece. It was a risky strategy and a smashing success. After Octavian brought the rest of the fleet to Greece, Agrippa joined him. He then came up with the winning tactics that destroyed the enemy fleet at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., an engagement that gave Octavian control of the Roman empire, and which led to Antony’s and Cleopatra’s suicides a year later.

Agrippa went on to serve Augustus, as Octavian soon became known, in a variety of administrative, diplomatic, and even dynastic functions. Octavian eventually chose Agrippa as his son-in-law. His descendants included Caligula and Nero. From general to progenitor, Agrippa was the Complete Number Two!


Let’s turn from ancient to modern statecraft. Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s most consequential prime minister after Churchill. She might not have succeeded, though, without the help of Willie Whitelaw. Charming but crafty, Whitelaw was her righthand man. As chief whip, he had Mrs. Thatcher’s back in Parliament. His advice was acute; his loyalty undoubted. Again and again, he saved her from her opponents.  The prime minister couldn’t do with him, and she handed Whitelaw a variety of sensitive assignments.

Mrs. Thatcher once famously said that “every prime minister needs a Willie.”  To get the joke, we need to know that in Britain, “Willie” (or usually “Willy”) means the same thing as “Dick” in the United States. Mrs. Thatcher was Britain’s first female prime minister, a strong woman who broke into an all-male club. By her remark she was poking fun at herself and at her critics while at the same time giving Whitelaw a risqué compliment.

“The bond between Numbers One and Two is more alchemy than chemistry.”

Risqué was Sinatra’s middle name. His amatory exploits are notorious, but he was all business when it came to music. After rocketing to the top of the vocal charts in the 1940s, Sinatra hit the ropes in 1950. He had voice problems and was forced to sing songs that are better forgotten. Then in 1953 he got his chance. Capitol Records decided to gamble on the down-and-out star, even though Sinatra had become all-but unhirable.  They paired him with an up-and-coming young arranger, Nelson Riddle. As arranger, Riddle chose the tempo, the instruments, the harmonies, the mood of the piece of music. He had shown his stuff by arranging the hit song “Mona Lisa” for Nat King Cole. Now Riddle turned to Sinatra. (On the collaboration of Sinatra and Riddle, see “The Riddle of Sinatra.”)

Their first session together on April 30 is memorable. No one, it is said, was more surprised than Sinatra with the results. One song in particular stands out, “I’ve Got the World on a String.” With its now-triumphant, now-muted brass playing against Sinatra’s mellow voice, the song is barely longer than two minutes, but it redefined the singer’s personality.

When he heard the recording, Sinatra was thrilled. “Jesus Christ,” he said, “I’m back, baby, I’m back.” And so, he was. The song was a hit and relaunched the singer’s career. Thanks to Riddle’s arrangements, Sinatra became the epitome of cool: mature, sophisticated, older but wiser, philosophical. No longer the “Frankie!” of the Forties Bobby-Soxers, he became the Sinatra of the porkpie hat, the bachelor pad, and the cocktail hour.

Sinatra and Riddle proceeded to lock in his new sound with several classic albums throughout the fifties. Although Sinatra went on to work with several other arrangers, he returned to Riddle often for over thirty years.

The bond between Numbers One and Two is more alchemy than chemistry. The mystery isn’t easy to unravel. A successful Number Two must be content to play second fiddle. A successful Number One needs to know when to hold the ego in check so as not to overwhelm Number Two. Not everyone can do it. Americans, for example, can think of more than one recent president who mismanaged his relationship with a chief advisor.

One thing is certain. No one holds the world on a string without having someone holding him or her.

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With It or On It

“With it or on it.”

Of all the pithy sayings in military history, this is my favorite. It has stiff competition, such as “I came, I saw, I conquered” or “the enemy gets a vote” or “Make haste slowly.” But “with it or on it” is mysterious and meaningful. It has something to tell us about how we write today. I’ll get to that, but first, a little background. Okay, a lot of background.

“With it or on it” comes from Sparta, the most famous warrior society in history. A place that gives us the adjective, “spartan,” which sums up military virtues such as resolute, severe, or austere. Wikipedia lists over 100 sports teams in the U.S. and Canada called “Spartans.”

But “with it or on it” is not the product of toxic masculinity. Actually, a woman said it. Spartan women were famously tough, part of a culture that bred females to raise heroes and partner with them. The “it” in question is a shield. The statement belongs to a legendary Spartan mother sending her son off to war. “Come back with your shield or on your shield,” she told the young soldier.

A little explanation is needed. The Greek infantryman carried a round body shield, held through a thong by the left hand. The shield protected both the left side of the soldier’s body and the right side of the man next to him. A Greek soldier, especially a Spartan, was meant to stand firm and steadfast in the battle line, holding up his shield to protect not only himself but his comrade. And if the enemy broke through the battle line? For a Spartan, that was unthinkable, but other Greeks might break and run. And throw away their shields, the faster to get away. No wonder that “Shield Thrower” was a term for coward in ancient Greece. For those who stayed and fought and paid a price, a shield served as a stretcher, for bringing back the wounded or the dead.

So, when that Spartan mother told her son, “with it or on it,” she was saying, “Come back with honor or come back dead.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher, considered Sparta a paradise of virtue. It was not. Ancient Greece was a militaristic society, and Sparta was the most militaristic of all. Ancient Greek city-states exploited unfree labor. Athens depended on chattel slavery, and Sparta on a kind of state serfs known as helots. (See another post for more on this.)

Spartans were proudly contemptuous of book learning. They claimed to be above money, but that rule was often honored only in the breach. No one with an ounce of democratic spirit could prefer Sparta to Athens.

But Sparta had its virtues. One of them was wit. A few examples: When she saw a foreign visitor have his shoes put on and laced up by his slave, the young Spartan princess Gorgo cried out, “Father, the man doesn’t have any hands!” To Alexander the Great’s demand that every Greek city-state recognize him as a god, the Spartans replied, “If Alexander wants to be a god, let him.” To a long-winded threat from King Philip of Macedon threatening to destroy Sparta if Macedon conquered it, a Spartan replied, “If.”

No wonder a synonym for pithy is laconic, which refers to Sparta’s geographical region, Laconia.

You gotta love the ancient Greeks. It was a Greek, although not a Spartan, who uttered one of my favorite phrases: “Big book, big bad.”

Now, back to us. We could use more less. Less verbiage. We live in the valley of verbosity. Word processing ushered us in, and the Internet closed off the way out. Time was, being a man of few words was considered a virtue. Nowadays, a 2000-word blog piece is just throat-clearing.

We have Twitter, of course, which started off strong. The CIA, for example, wrote when it joined Twitter, “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.” But the 140-character limit was doubled to 280, and it has since been rendered meaningless by “threads” that string together entry after entry. Tweets have turned into ornithological feeding stations.

But enough complaining. How can you do less? Just do it. Shorten your sentences. Take red pens to your prose. Read writing that slows the word train. The short stories of Edgar Allan Poe or Ernest Hemingway, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, the essays of H. L. Mencken or A.J. Liebling, for example. You want short and sweet? Try children’s books, like Goodnight, Moon. Or, for the theory of direct and lucid writing, I recommend a work by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. The authors are professors but don’t worry, they don’t write academese.

Let me close with a quotation from the Bible: “Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise, and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.” (Proverbs 17:18, KJV).