A republic, if you can not uh-oh it
Does the five-second rule apply to countries?
When my 15-month-old daughter, C, does not want to nap, there’s a word you are most likely to hear over the baby monitor: Uh-oh. Uh-oh is an expansive concept for her right now, which is perhaps natural given that she’s working with only about a fifty-word vocabulary. Oops, I dropped the cup I was carrying: Uh-oh, she says. I have found a piece of schmutz on the kitchen floor: Uh-oh. Behold, the toy basketball hoop at the playground is on its back rather than upright: Uh-oh.
Those are all relatively conventional uses of “uh-oh”—as an exclamation of surprise and dismay. But the baby uses it in other ways as well. Over the monitor, a volley of “uh-ohs” means C is systematically throwing each of her stuffed animals overboard, leaving her standing victorious in an empty crib. Toward the end of a meal, she will hold a smushed tomato out to the side, look you in the eye, and say “Uh-oh!” “No, don’t uh-oh that!” I find myself pleading.
With “uh-oh,” in other words, C declares that something has been or is going to be dropped, but she implies no accountability for the dropping. She is merely announcing the presence of gravity, doing its thing.
I’m thinking about this usage of “uh-oh” this week as the Biden administration opens the doors of the White House to find out just how much policy, ethics, and justice has been dropped onto the floor. (How weird for this team to leave the joint to a reality TV star for four years, then kick him out and come back, like the world’s worst Sabbatical Homes swap.) This was always what was disorienting about Donald Trump and his entourage: they never seemed to feel any guilt or shame about their actions, any more than the baby feels guilty about the squished tomato. I’ve always resisted the idea that Trump is like a toddler, but on this point I’ll give it to him.
No mere toddler, though, could uh-oh on the scale of these guys. We let the zoonotic coronavirus pandemic that’s been forecast for literal years kill 400,000 people: Uh-oh. We welcomed Russian efforts to win us the election, lied about it, and then obstructed AND lied about the investigation: Uh-oh. We made up a story about election fraud and got so many people to believe it that they sacked the Capitol: Uh-oh. It’s just gravity, doing its thing, coins dropping into our pockets and clinking against the coins that are already there. Uh-oh, or to put it another way, who cares?
It turns out some people do care. Voters care. All those janitors cleaning white-supremacist poop off the Capitol walls. The government officials and lawyers getting prepped to hit former president Trump with a Senate impeachment trial, criminal and civil prosecutions, and fraud and defamation lawsuits.
But Biden, Harris, and their team are the ones we’ve designated as primary pickup crew. Picking up a toy basketball hoop is easy, and Biden’s Day 1 afternoon of executive orders almost as swiftly upended some of Trump’s worst policies—to the point that Fox News’s Ainsley Earhardt complained that they constituted “wiping away much of what President Trump did."
Still, some things, once dropped, can’t be easily repaired. You can’t uncrack an egg. You can sign back onto the Paris Agreement, but you can’t raise 400,000 Americans from the dead. Biden, in his inauguration speech, emphasized the scope of the challenge ahead: “Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal. Much to build. And much to gain,” he said. Perhaps the most painful part of that reckoning will be sorting out what aspects of the last four years can be scooped up, reconstructed, or reinvented, and those we’ll just have to learn to accept are gone.
What to read
From the New York Times’s Michael Paulson, an oral history of what happened when the cast and crew of Broadway’s Moulin Rouge!, a delightful if lightweight chocolate box of a musical that was one of the last pieces of theater I saw in the Before Times, got slammed by Covid—including lung damage, new babies, archery lessons, and having to move back home. That photo of the ghost light will haunt me, along with worry for the fate of the entire industry.
Biden’s big proposed immigration overhaul includes one small but telling semantic update: changing the word “alien” in our nation’s laws to “noncitizen.” No style guide in any newsroom where I’ve worked recommends using the pejorative “alien” in 2021, but that doesn’t save you as a journalist when you have to quote federal law—suddenly there’s this word dripping with hostility in the middle of your story, even if your whole point is these people’s humanity.
So many tireless Trump reporters deserve a long tropical vacation right now—just off the top of my head, CNN’s master lie taxonomist Daniel Dale, the Times’s 83-byline-a-day phone scribe Maggie Haberman (who got to witness Trump’s final takeoff to “My Way”), and New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi, who sacrificed sleep and domestic peace for one last demented guinea-pig story about MyPillow. Brave soldiers, all.
What to consume
This delicious Smitten Kitchen pumpkin bread. I make it as little tiny muffins because I found a pan for little tiny muffins in a free box on the street last year during one of my endless pandemic circuits of the neighborhood. Obviously if someone like that can make this, so can you.
Garth Brooks singing a tender and unadorned “Amazing Grace” at Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s swearing in. This was the moment that got me. There’s hope for us yet.
That’s it for this time. Let’s all pray for a Wednesday free of insurrections, impeachments, and inaugurations for once this month, and see you next week.