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Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.
This article is part of Times Opinion’s Holiday Giving Guide 2021. For other ideas on where to donate this year, please see the rest of our guide here.
What did Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham say about the Jan. 6 rioting at the United States Capitol — and when did they say it?
Were they suitably censorious of the violence? At the time, did their public remarks match their private horror?
Those questions have been heatedly and extensively hashed out over the days since a House committee released text messages from Jan. 6 in which Hannity and Ingraham, the popular hosts of prime-time shows on Fox News, separately implored President Donald Trump’s chief of staff to get Trump to say and do something to disperse the protesters and quell the violence. Hannity and Ingraham knew that he had stirred those protesters and could sway them, more so than they ever acknowledged on-air, according to their critics. According to Hannity and Ingraham, they’re just the victims — yet again! — of left-wing media smears.
You can delve into the weeds of this or you can pull back and survey the whole ugly yard. And what you see when you do that — what matters most in the end — is that Fox News has helped to sell the fiction that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, and there’s a direct line from that lie to the rioting. There’s a direct line from that lie to various Republicans’ attempts to develop mechanisms to overturn vote counts should they dislike the results.
That lie is the root of the terrible danger that we’re in, with Trump supporters being encouraged to distrust and undermine the democratic process. And that lie has often found a welcome mat at Fox News.
The Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple is among the many attuned observers who have documented this, and a column of his from mid-January 2021 presented a compendium of inciting commentary on Fox News in the lead-up to Jan. 6. Interviewing Trump on Nov. 29, 2020, the Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo declared: “We cannot allow America’s election to be corrupted. We cannot.” On Hannity’s show two days later, the Fox News host Jeanine Pirro vented an apocalyptic outrage about Joe Biden’s victory, saying: “This fraud will continue and America will be doomed for the next 20 years.” The Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich, the Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, Hannity himself — all of them got in on the action to some degree, stating or signaling that something about the 2020 election was terribly amiss.
And their evidence? It was fugitive then, and no one has tracked it down since. That’s because it doesn’t exist. It’s a conspiracy-minded, ratings-driven hallucination. Just this week, The Associated Press published a review of “every potential case of voter fraud in the six battleground states” where Trump has disputed Biden’s victory. It found fewer than 475 cases.
“Joe Biden won Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and their 79 Electoral College votes by a combined 311,257 votes out of 25.5 million ballots cast for president,” the A.P. reported. “The disputed ballots represent just 0.15 percent of his victory margin in those states. The cases could not throw the outcome into question even if all the potentially fraudulent votes were for Biden, which they were not, and even if those ballots were actually counted, which in most cases they were not.”
This mathematical analysis hardly supports the hysteria on the right — a hysteria that Fox News readily whips up. (I direct you to the so-called documentary “Patriot Purge” on Fox Nation, in which Tucker Carlson recasts Jan. 6 as evidence that a corrupt government is setting up and locking up Trump supporters, who are really political prisoners.) And this is no garden-variety partisan hysteria. It circles around and sometimes lands squarely on the contention that Biden is an illegitimate president and Trump is our rightful ruler, exiled to the Siberia of southern Florida.
I know the pushback from the right: It was Democrats who refused to accept Trump’s legitimacy by insisting that he, in cahoots with Russia, cheated his way into the Oval Office. They rushed to judgment as more than a few sympathetic journalists indulged or floated rococo scenarios well beyond anything provable.
But, but, but. Democrats weren’t passing or trying to pass laws in battleground states that would enable them to counter the popular will. Democrats weren’t trying to enshrine rule by the minority. Many Republicans are doing precisely that now.
And they’re being motivated and cheered, both directly and obliquely, by what they see and hear on Fox News. I care less about Hannity’s and Ingraham’s precise words on Jan. 6 than about what they and their colleagues on Fox News said before and after, and what they’re saying now. It’s reckless. It’s subversive. And it’s scary.
To go blind is to go back to school — the school of life.
The simplest things, like cooking and dressing, are no longer simple, not at the start, because you once did them primarily with the sense of sight and must now rely on touch and sound and little prompts and tricks that weren’t necessary before. Often, someone has to teach you those tricks.
Someone has to show you how to navigate the exit from your home and the re-entry; how to walk safely down the street; how to cross the street, a passage grown exponentially more perilous. Familiar tasks are suddenly unfamiliar, and independence must be forged anew.
That’s where a group like Visions comes in.
It’s a nonprofit rehabilitation and social services agency in New York that specifically helps people who are blind and visually impaired, and an overwhelming majority of those people have limited means — they can’t afford to pay for this help themselves. Visions is funded largely, but not entirely, by continuing government and foundation grants. But it depends, too, on individual contributions. It thrives when generous people give.
I found my way to one of three centers that Visions runs after I was diagnosed with a rare disorder that threatens my own eyesight. I went there not as a client but as a journalist, curious to know more about the challenges that visually impaired people face. At this particular Visions center, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, I saw such people being coached through the use of special computer programs. I saw them in a dance class, which gave them an outlet for physical expression — and a safe space — that they can’t find elsewhere.
But much of what Visions does is in people’s homes, to which it sends therapists and other helpers. One of those therapists told me about an elderly woman who despaired of being able to light the candles that she typically used for the Jewish sabbath. She learned anew, though she could no longer see the flame.
Blind people live full lives, but they face challenges that the rest of us don’t. In my own holiday season giving over recent years, I’ve kept that in mind and been sure to include groups that directly serve visually impaired people or promote research into potential cures and treatments for blindness. Large and small organizations on my radar include the Foundation Fighting Blindness, the VisionServe Alliance, the Filomen M. D’Agostino Greenberg Music School and The Seeing Eye.
I’ll long remember that dance class at Visions, not for the moves that its participants busted but for the contentment that they radiated. In a world that could often shut them out, they’d been invited in. In a society that often told them what they couldn’t do, they were doing something that they themselves hadn’t expected. They gave me something: hope.
Coming up with new ways to express frustration about the crazily high number of Americans who refuse coronavirus vaccines is increasingly difficult, so I tip my hat to John Ficarra, in Air Mail, for this: “Yes, West Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. But with your measly 49 percent double-vaccinated rate, he will be skipping most of your state.”
In a recent re-examination of Greta Garbo’s career in The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot wrote: “Few other performers have ascended as quickly to mononymic status as Garbo did — she started off the way most of us do, with a first and last name, but the first soon fell away, like a spent rocket booster.” (Thanks to Ian Grimm, of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Stephanie Hawkins of Denton, Texas, for nominating this.)
Per usual, there have been great sentences aplenty in The Times recently, including Eric Kim’s on one of the components of a divine holiday ham: “Sticky like tar and richly savory in taste, this glaze gets its body and spice from Dijon mustard, its molasses-rich sweetness from brown sugar and its high note, the kind of flavor that floats on top like a finely tuned piccolo in an orchestra, from a touch of rice vinegar.” (Dan Lorenzini, Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.)
Here’s John McWhorter on how reliably language, including pronunciation, mutates: “Even with a word as quotidian as lox (with no disrespect intended to salmon, smoked or otherwise), you can bet that sooner rather than later, the passage of time will mash it with pestles and refract it through prisms to the point that it is all but beyond recognition.” (Barbara Sloan, Conway, S.C.)
Here’s Pete Wells on the New York City restaurant that he liked best among the standouts that opened this year: “Half of Dhamaka’s success must have been its timing. New York was still coming out of a pandemic-shutdown fog when it opened in February, a period of glitchy video calls, undefined working hours, creeping anxiety, reheated leftovers and repressed pleasures. Life had gone prematurely gray. There’s nothing gray about the food at Dhamaka, though. Every dish comes at you as if it wants to either marry you or kill you.” (Kathleen Bridgman, Walnut Creek, Calif., and Donald Ham, Vallejo, Calif., among others)
And here’s James Poniewozik on a recurring character in America’s culture wars: “There’s a rule in politics, or at least there should be: Never get into a fight with Big Bird. You end up spitting out feathers, and the eight-foot fowl just strolls away singing about the alphabet.” (Valerie Hoffmann, Montauk, N.Y.)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here, and please include your name and place of residence.
For me, the holiday season is often about catching up on television series and movies that I didn’t have time to watch when they were first released. So I recently binged “Mare of Easttown,” which I enjoyed and admired every bit as much as its most ardent fans had told me I would, and “Hacks,” whose virtues redeemed its unevenness from episode to episode. “Mare” and “Hacks” have a common denominator: the actress Jean Smart, who has a supporting role in “Mare,” as the mother of the police detective (Kate Winslet) trying to solve a local murder, and the starring role in “Hacks,” as a stand-up diva terrified that she’s being put out to comedy pasture. Over the past two decades, Smart has become the Meryl Streep of the small screen. I’d pay to listen to her read the instructions for assembling an Ikea dresser. I’d pay to watch her assemble it. Heck, I’d assemble it for her, and I’m entirely thumbs.
Speaking of great performances, the movie “King Richard,” about Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena, is chockablock with them. Will Smith’s work in the title role has received the most attention, but Aunjanue Ellis, as the tennis prodigies’ mother, Oracene, impressed me just as much if not more. “King Richard” itself is entertaining and skillfully made, especially in the way it captures the speed and breathtaking athleticism of the sport at its center.
Seldom does a celebrity profile generate as much discussion as Michael Schulman’s of the actor Jeremy Strong (“Succession”) did. The article, published in The New Yorker, is very much worth reading on its own merits: It’s a model of exhaustive, detail-rich reporting. But you can have some extra fun by also checking out the reactions to it and figuring out your own answer to the question of whether Schulman stacked the deck against his subject.
There are some songs that you hear so often across so many years that you no longer listen to them, not in any active sense. They wash over you. You hum without knowing it, tap your foot without engaging your brain. That’s the way it is with me and the unsurpassable Nina Simone version of “Feeling Good.” I swim in it without realizing I’m wet.
But the other day, when it cycled onto some Pandora station of mine, I happened to pay close attention. I registered — really registered — the words: “Birds flying high/You know how I feel/Sun in the sky/You know how I feel.” “River running free,” “blossom on a tree,” “stars when you shine,” “scent of the pine” — all of them know how she feels. What a lovely take, and what a true one. When you’re indeed feeling as good and as free as the singer of this song, you’re not just in nature. You’re communicating with it, and it’s the expression of your own elation.
The song, a declaration of emancipation, was written not by Simone but by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, for the 1964 musical “The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd.” No surprise that it comes from a stage production: As the tributes to Stephen Sondheim after his death a few weeks ago reminded us, musical theater is a treasure chest of grand and clever lyrics. And lyrics are my focus here — lyrics and what a joy it is to come across superior ones.
Most popular songs nowadays are lyrical letdowns. They don’t try all that hard. They lean on catchy riffs and on clunky or banal rhymes. Sometimes the lyrics are inscrutable. Just as often they’re trite.
But when they’re not? It’s a much bigger surprise than encountering stellar prose, and thus, for me, it’s an even bigger pleasure. It’s poetry that you can sing along to, eloquence with a beat. I have a terrible memory for many things, but play me a well-written song with well-turned words three or four times and those words are with me and in me forever.
Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” for example. There are banal rhymes and then there are audacious ones. I put “yacht,” “apricot” and “gavotte” in the latter category — and they appear in the song’s first stanza. I can sing “You’re So Vain” from start to finish, not muffing a syllable, even if I haven’t heard it in a decade.
And you? Where in popular music, especially current and recent popular music, have you struck lyrics gold? Tell me by emailing me here. Maybe I’ll spotlight and celebrate some of these examples in newsletters to come.
This column is part of Times Opinion’s Holiday Giving Guide 2021. If you are interested in any organization mentioned in the giving guide, please go directly to its website. Neither the authors nor The Times will be able to address queries about the groups or facilitate donations.