Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Splendid Sentences, Part 5: Andrew Sullivan on Religious Fundamentalism

Here is the penultimate sentence of Andrew Sullivan's 4,272 essay "This Is a Religious War" (The New York Times, October 7, 2001):
We are fighting for religion against one of the deepest strains in religion there is. 
In this article, Sullivan claims that religion is at the core of the United States-led Middle East war, despite claims to the contrary by politicians across the world. It's a powerful concluding sentence considering it appeared in print less than a month after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when America was still enraged about what happened, confused as to why it happened, uncertain about what to do in its wake, and divided about how long any effort to avenge the terrorist acts would take.

The sentence is also profound. It turns religion on its head. It asserts that the United States, a purportedly secular society, is engaged in a holy war of sorts against a movement that makes no illusions about its divine edict to destroy infidels. Such wars, which at their root show total contempt for reason, are likely to cause more senseless bloodshed and global instability than most. They amount to a zero-sum approach to resolving differences in which losers take nothing and everyone is a loser.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Splendid Sentences, Part 4: Martin Luther King Jr. on Injustice

Toward the end of his fabled 8,000-word "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" (April 1963), Martin Luther King Jr. juxtaposes these two sentences:
If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable patience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
While King's essay served as an open letter to society for any newspaper or magazine that would publish it—and many did—he actually opened it with "My dear Fellow Clergymen," in response to those ministers, priests, and rabbis who claimed that his brand of civil disobedience was not akin to Gandhi's nonviolent protest movement of a generation earlier, but tantamount to a criminal conduct that threatened to undermine the very goals he set for his civil rights campaign. 

Why are these two sentences so powerful? I can think of at least three reasons.

  • Rhetorical repetition figures prominently in King's speeches and not so much in his prose, but not here. The first 18 words of both sentences are identical, except for the one in polar opposite of the other (overstatement and understatement), creating a rhythm that makes the prose dance.
  • Dramatic contradiction is another device King uses, not at all unique to him. (Remember "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," or "Some men see things as they are, and ask why; I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.") He shows his human limitations by admitting to the possibility of overstating to the point of inappropriate fervency toward jurisprudence and law enforcement, as well as understating to the point of unforgivable indifference to humanity. 
  • Divine refutation borders on divine fallacy in most cases, but we must remember the men of the cloth who were the intended recipients of these sentences. They are in the God business. King asks them to forgive his overstating his point, which he believes can hardly be overstated; however, he asks the far greater authority of God to forgive any chance of his standing where his opponents do. And, of course, we can forgive impatience toward injustice quicker than we can a contempt toward brotherhood.
"Letter from Birmingham City Jail" contains numerous other rhetorical devices that make it worth reading in full.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Splendid Sentences, Part 3: Steven Pinker on Human Progress

Steven Pinker, award-winning Harvard professor and author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, among many other outstanding books, wrote this sentence in his article "Follow the Trendlines", appearing in The Economist special issue The World in 2019:
Since the 18th-century Enlightenment, life expectancy across the world has increased from 30 to 71 years, extreme poverty has fallen from 90% to 10 %, literacy has risen from 12% to 83%, and the share of people living in democracies has leapt from 1% to two-thirds.
The obvious optimism of this 45-word sentence is refreshing, but what impresses me more is how Pinker hits these high notes after rendering a realistic picture of how we get news about our world. Reporting failure, he writes, is the job of journalism while reporting success seems like public relations. He uses statistics to make his indisputable case that humanity has continually progressed for the better over the centuries. Numbers are rarely sexy, but they are here.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Splendid Sentences, Part 2: Stanley Karnow on the Vietnam Memorial

Stanley Karnow chose to begin his reportorial and historical masterpiece, Vietnam: A History, with an image of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. The third sentence epitomizes the Memorial's significance:
The names of the dead engraved on the granite record more than lives lost in battle: they represent a sacrifice to a failed crusade, however noble or illusory its motives.
Karnow's choice of crusade could not be more apt a comparison, as he concludes the sentence with noble and illusory, simultaneously contradictory and complementary descriptions of the two-century religious wars nearly a millennium earlier.