Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Hum, in Defense of Prescriptivism, and Addiction in America

Also: Paul McCartney’s musical adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life, and more.

The unexplained noise that 2% of people hear: “Some describe it as sounding like an engine idling just outside the house. Others report hearing a low-frequency rumble. But almost everyone who can hear it—2 percent of the population, by some estimates—agrees on one thing: ‘the hum,’ as it has come to be called, is a persistent, maddening noise for which the scientific world has no known explanation.”

Paul McCartney has written a musical adaptation of Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life: “The musical was initiated by Bill Kenwright, the British theatre producer known for hit productions of Blood Brothers and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, as well as recent West End shows such as Heathers: the Musical. Kenwright acquired the rights to It’s a Wonderful Life and approached McCartney – a fellow Liverpudlian – with the idea three years ago. ‘Like many of these things, this all started with an email,’ McCartney said.”

The Louvre removes Sackler name from its walls: “President of the Louvre Museum Jean-Luc Martinez denied any connection between the decision and a recent . . . protest outside the museum.”

Albert Camus’s tragic sense: “Tragedy in the West, then, Camus concludes, occurs at periods of history when human beings are poised midway between a divinely ordered and a human-centered world. The 17th century saw the death of the tradition; the Romantics wrote no tragedies, only dramas, indeed melodramas. The Romantic hero in his splendid isolation can be magnificent, but hardly tragic, since he will admit no claim superior to his self-assertion. What, then, of the world of 1955?”

Theodore Dalrymple reviews Paul Kenyon’s Dictatorland—“a highly readable but not very analytical book about African dictators and dictatorship”: “A former correspondent in Africa for the BBC, Kenyonhas travelled widely on the continent, including to very remote places. He doesn’t, however, tell us how or why he chose to describe the seven dictatorial regimes (out of the lamentably many he could have chosen) he includes in his book and, I think rather disappointingly, he ventures no general theory to explain Africa’s inability to install minimally democratic regimes. He offers us not a typology but merely a menagerie of dictators, albeit one whose inhabitants are never less than hypnotically fascinating.”

Micah Meadowcroft on addiction in America: “‘Accessibility, affordability, advertising, anonymity, and anomie, the five cylinders of the engine of mass addiction,’ writes David T. Courtwright in his new, one might say compulsively readable book about bad habits becoming big business, The Age of Addiction. We are, all of us, doing things to regulate our moods and get a little hit of dopamine, to cope, all the time. Sometimes we call those things addictions. Often, of course, we don’t.”

Essay of the Day:

In Harper’s, Lionel Shriver explains why she is a prescriptivist even though language is bound to “decay”:

“Regarding the purported rules of En­glish syntax, we tend to divide into mutually hostile camps. Hip, open-­minded types relish the never-­ending transformations of the way we speak and write. They care about the integrity of our language only insofar as to ensure that we can still roughly understand one another. In the opposite corner glower the curmudgeons. These joyless, uptight authoritarians are forever muttering about clunky concepts such as “the unreal conditional” that nobody’s ever heard of.

“I’ve thrown in my lot with the pedants. Yes, language is a living tree, eternally sprouting new shoots as other branches wither . . . blah, blah, blah. But a poorly cultivated plant can readily gnarl from lush foliage to unsightly sticks. The internet has turbo­charged lexical fads (such as ‘turbo­charge’) and grammatical decay. Rather than infuse En­glish with a new vitality, this degeneration spreads the blight of sheer ignorance. So this month we address a set of developments in the prevailing conventions of the En­glish language whose only commonality is that they drive me crazy.

“I long ago developed the habit of mentally correcting other people’s grammatical errors, and sometimes these chiding reproofs escape my lips (‘You mean “Ask us Democrats”’). Marking up casual conversation with a red pencil doesn’t make me popular, and I should learn to control myself. Yet fellow philological conservatives will recognize the impulse to immediately re­groove one’s neural pathways, the better to preserve one’s fragile ear for proper En­glish. That ear is constantly under assault by widespread misusage that threatens by repetition to be—­another on-­trend verb—‘normalized.’

“For even we rigid, grumpy anachronisms are vulnerable (a blobby political catch­all I now encounter dozens of times a day). I recently received what I pleasantly mistook for a fan letter, only to unfold the very sort of mortifying reprimand that I myself hurl at grammatical slackers. My last column in Britain’s Spectator had employed ‘laid’ as the past tense of ‘lie.’ The stern correspondent was understandably disappointed in me. Granted, I don’t envy second-­language speakers obliged to memorize the perverse tense pairings ‘lie/lay’ and ‘lay/laid,’ but for me those conjugations were once second nature. My instincts have been contaminated. Proofreading that column, I’d sailed right past the mistake.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Owl

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