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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 22, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Charlotte's Web, Obsolete, Muzzled

Sometimes, when I'm particularly annoyed with the very bad writing advice given in Strunk & White's Elements of Style, I forget that the White who took part in that abomination was the same E. B. White who wrote the perfect children's book Charlotte's Web.

A book like Charlotte's Web, delicate, sensitive, ruthless, funny, passionate, kind, does not come from nowhere. It was not the first book that made me care, but it may well have been the first book that made me cry. It was written by an author who understood that children can deal with death as a part of life, that a life does not cease to mean something just because it ended.

Michael Sims has given us now a biographical sketch of E. B. White, The Story of Charlotte's Web, that is funneled through that question: Where did Charlotte's Web come from?

Most great biographies are massive tomes that provide us with evidence and attitudes toward great decisions, that probe the inner workings of a difficult mind, and I have loved those books, when done honestly and well.

But size and weight are not the measure of a biography. I'm sure that in the life of E. B. "Andy" White, enough paper was generated to amply sustain a biography of a thousand pages, examining every scrap that he wrote during his years as one of the dominant voices of the light-yet-telling New Yorker magazine in its early days.

I could imagine a fascinating volume that examined every aspect of White's life with his equally talented wife, Katharine Angell, also a powerful presence on the New Yorker staff as editor and writer.

There was nothing in Katharine's life to suggest that she longed to become a farmer's wife, yet as Andy's writing earned him enough money that he could acquire a farm on the coast of Maine, that is what she became.

Not entirely -- her career continued -- but at a distance, with difficulty, so that Andy could live the life out of which would come, eventually, Charlotte's Web.

But no one knew that Charlotte's Web was coming. All their decisions were made for their own sake -- out of E. B. White's love of animals and plants and farming, the cycle of life; and out of Katharine Angell's love of E. B. White.

In The Story of Charlotte's Web, Sims touches gently yet tantalizingly on every aspect of White's life, as if we were visitors in the Whites' home. We are shown the parlor, given a sandwich in the kitchen, taken to the porch for lemonade, and then given a tour of the barn and all the animals; our host could not be more gracious.

We also see that if we only paused to climb this stair, open that curtain, lift the lid of one little box on the table, we would find many rooms, broad views, jewels well worth gazing at.

Yet that would be prying. And what we are shown is so deep and sweet and true that I, at least, was more than content.

There are enough samples of White's wit to let us understand why he helped to make the New Yorker so very successful:

"I'm in love, and I'm going crazy."
(Translation of a Boston terrier's bark)

He was gifted at light verse, especially when it had a serious meaning, as when he wrote about "his own yearning for love":

And if I have not said it well,
        Or even loud enough to hear it,
That is because I cannot tell
        How much I like, how much I fear it.

Then there's the perfect poem he wrote to Katharine, a love poem called "Natural History" that presages Charlotte's Web while being strangely apropos to the way he and Katharine were drawn to each other:

The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unwinds a thread of his devising;
A thin, premeditated rig,
To use in rising.

And all the journey down through space
In cool descent, and loyal-hearted,
He builds a ladder to the place
From which he started.

Thus I, gone forth, as spiders do,
In spider's web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken strand to you
For my returning.

And who knew that White was the creator of the caption to a cartoon so successful that its punchline entered the language as a common saying? Cartoonist Carl Rose had created a drawing of a mother and her curly-haired young daughter eating in a restaurant. But the original caption would not do.

So White had the mother say, "It's broccoli, dear."

The daughter answers, "I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it."

I heard my father quote that line more than once as I was growing up; I've said it more than once myself, and heard it from others, too. It came from the same mind as Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web.

I have read many literary biographies that purported to show us the sources of a writer's work, but none as believable and satisfying as this one. Sims has created, in this study of a writer and his best-loved work, a literary work in its own right. It is, from beginning to end, a pleasure to read. At the end of it, you feel that you have made a good friend.


You might enjoy an online visit to The Museum of Obsolete Objects, which displays items that were once new and brilliant, and swept the world -- only to disappear when they were replaced by something better.

I remember well the first time I saw a tape cassette. I had grown up around reel-to-reel tape recording, what with my father being a professor of audio-visual educational tools and methods.

So it seemed incredible to me when a doctor who lived down the street showed my family, as we visited in his home, how this amazingly slender tape resided in a plastic case that you simply snapped into place, without having to thread it on a reel.

It was 1965 or so. Thirty-five years later, I rejected a rental car on Los Angeles because it only had a CD player in it, and I needed one that could play the cassettes of a book on tape that I was listening to.

Now, eleven years after that, I don't care whether there's a CD player or not -- I'm listening to my audiobooks as Mpeg4s from Audible or Great Courses on my iPod Nano.

This website, then, is an affectionate yet silly adieu to technologies that once dazzled us, and now are nearly forgotten. http://www.youtube.com/user/MoooJvM

I only wish they had also shown the replacements that made the objects obsolete.

And where did they get the date of 1387 for the invention of the abacus?


I just finished listening to Juan Williams's book Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, and he has reaffirmed his place as my favorite liberal.

Williams, you'll recall, was a longtime commentator for both NPR and Fox News, which surprised nobody at Fox, where both sides of every story are told as fairly as possible, but was considered subversive, shocking, even treasonous at NPR, where only the extreme Left was welcome.

So when Williams, in the midst of an explanation of why Bill O'Reilly should not speak as if terrorism were a natural part of Islam instead of a rare aberration, said on Fox News that yes, he got nervous when he saw someone in openly Muslim garb get on his airplane.

How could any American in today's world not take special note of someone who is assertively Muslim getting on an airplane?

But in the eyes of the brass at NPR, this made Williams a racist -- not for feeling it, but for saying that he felt it, and especially for saying it on Fox News Channel. As a result, he was fired.

Under vaguely similar circumstances, Bernie Goldberg (Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News) came out of the closet as a fairly conservative guy.

But Juan Williams is not a conservative. He's a liberal.

Or, more accurately, he more often agrees with liberal positions on the issues than conservative ones, but (like me) he is far from reliably in agreement with anyone's template of how a "true liberal" or "true conservative" should think.

So Muzzled is not an attack on the Left or on what most of us call political correctness -- the Leftist code of correct thought.

Instead, he points out instances of insistence on lockstep groupthink on both the left and the right.

(I love the phrase "lockstep groupthink," because metaphors are at their best when they are mixed.)

Any conservative who has ever accused a Republican of insufficient purity by calling him a RINO (Republican in Name Only), or castigated a master of finance like Romney because he actually governed a liberal state in accordance with the wishes of its liberal citizenry, has been just as guilty of inquisitorial thinking as any mindless PC groupthinker.

What bothers Williams -- and me, too -- is the near impossibility of having any kind of serious discussion in the American political world today.

There are real issues, matters of honest disagreement on hot button issues, where, if we would only listen to each other, compromise could be worked out.

Instead, as soon as someone suggests an idea that is not exactly in line with correct thinking (in their opinion), the inquisitors begin to torture them with ad hominem attacks. Everybody gets borked.

It's as if diehard conservatives hate a moderate Republican like McCain or Romney more than they hate Obama; it's as if diehard liberals hate an open-minded liberal like Juan Williams (when one dares to show his face) more than they hate Rush Limbaugh.

Williams is right. You make more money when you go for the jugular, with reckless disregard for decency or accuracy, like Michael Savage, Al Franken, Ann Coulter, or Bill Maher, than when you are willing to talk reasonably with people on the other side, and assume that they are also people of good sense and good will, whose concerns are worth taking seriously.

Is Williams himself perfect? No. For instance, in Muzzled, when he's talking about controversial Bush administration policies like allowing waterboarding and doing warrantless electronic surveillance, he quotes Dick Cheney's support of those policies as if his reasons were mere excuses, and Cheney really doesn't care about the Constitution; while Obama's continuation of Bush administration policies comes only because he is forced to do this lest he be blamed for it if a terrorist attack came afterward.

I wish Williams had treated both sides as if, as is likely, they all reached the conclusion that, unpleasant and dangerous as it may be to skirt the edges of decency and Constitutionality like this, these were measures necessary to the safety of the citizens of this country.

And, in time of war, not all things can be debated. For instance, a public debate on electronic surveillance techniques would have made them instantly ineffective, since the terrorists would go off grid -- as they did the moment the electronic surveillance was exposed in the media.

Williams also cites various studies of how inferior American health care is to European and other socialist health care systems -- seemingly unaware that these statistics are all deeply biased, since they include among their criteria of "quality" a strong bonus for systems that provide free access to the poor.

In other words, the "facts" are created in order to show that socialized medicine is better; Williams didn't go deeply into the statistics to find out whether they were worth anything.

But Williams makes few lapses like this in Muzzled, and I believe none of his lapses were deliberate. There are many other points where I disagree with him, but not because he's wrong on the facts. Rather, he and I simply reach different conclusions from the same facts, because we have different priorities.

On many other subjects, though, we see eye to eye. The hard thing for most of us to realize is that the guy who's really smart and good when he agrees with us doesn't become stupid or evil or ignorant when he disagrees.

As often as not, when we come down to cases, most of us end up reaching very similar conclusions. It's when we paint with broad strokes that we end up clashing.

I recommend Muzzled for anyone who cares about civil public discourse in America, whether you count yourself as a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, or none of the above.

Williams says things that will irritate all of you. Well, boo hoo.

Suck it up, kids!

Walk it off!

That's what it means to have free speech in a public forum. You won't just hear what you agree with. How will you learn anything, if you only listen to one side?

Too often we think of American politics as a tennis match, going back and forth until one side comes away with everything. You know, Obama's attitude when he said, "Elections have consequences. We won."

Politics is nothing like that, in a democracy, when it's done properly. The goal is to make laws that can be lived with, that can last, because the vast majority of the people agree with them.

Ramming things down the other guy's throat because you are able to trick the system or get 50.0001 percent of the vote is just plain stupid -- it only means that when he gets the upper hand, he'll feel completely justified in doing the same thing to you.

You give a little, you bend a little. You meet at the net, talk things over, agree to share the ball. It makes lousy tennis, but good laws and good government.

But it never happens when you scream hateful slogans, make personal accusations, and lie about the other guy.

On one key point, though, Williams's equation of extremist rhetoric from Left and Right is not accurate, if only because right now the Left has a stranglehold on the elite institutions of American life and does not hesitate to use them in an inquisitorial manner.

The Right doesn't have power to deny tenure to a professor or fire a teacher who varies from their orthodoxy, and the Left does. The Left today is just as mindlessly determined to force its ideology on the nation as the Right was during its era of ascendancy.

Witch hunts, Scopes trials -- they're not gone. They just wear different clothes. Williams is right that if the extremist Right had the upper hand, they'd behave just as badly. But at this moment they don't. So these outrages against free speech are coming almost exclusively from the Left today, and I wish Muzzled had recognized that.

Yet perhaps it's as well that it doesn't. Williams was trying to be balanced and even-handed, and if he was a little inaccurate about how the balance of power stacks up right now, that's not as important as his primary message, which is:

Grow up and give the other fella a chance to speak his mind, and then take what he has to say as seriously as you want him to take your opinions.

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