You Don't Say

John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Monday, September 16, 2019

The face in the mirror

In the morning when I look in the mirror, I see someone in his late sixties with gray hair, a paunch, and a face that disturbingly resembles my father's That is not who I am.

In my head I am eighteen years old, six feet tall, a skinny one hundred thirty pounds, about to step into the wider world from Fleming County, Kentucky. That's who I am, and the scattering of personae I've gathered over the past half-century (graduate student, husband, father, editor, teacher, parishioner, Marylander, sexagenarian, whatever) are all in some sense artificial, not quite who I am.

Next month my fellow graduates of the Class of 1969 at Fleming County High School will be at a party to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of their graduation, a party I can't attend because of an obligation in Baltimore.

But if I were there, those people would see through the accidental accumulations of those fifty years and identify me as that skinny eighteen-year-old with the brown hair and thick eyeglasses. And they would call me "John Early," because they know what my name is, the name my family used, the name they used, and I would hear in its authentic sound. (Kathleen calls me John Early; she has the words but not the tune.)

It's a slippery thing, identity, those selves we assume to fit the occasions. One plays the roles: professional journalist, college lecturer, adult. Some days it feels like imposture, because at the core there is still that skinny introvert, bookish, eager for the wider world but a little daunted by stepping into it.

But then the curtain rises, and the show goes on. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

We're not going back to a place that didn't actually exist

Some of the people I grew up among in Kentucky periodically post memes on Facebook about bringing prayer back into the public schools. I have a pretty good idea of what they want, because I remember what they had.

We began every day at Elizaville Elementary School by standing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, followed by the Lord's Prayer, until the Supreme Court belatedly realized that it is not the job of the state to provide religious instruction.

It was, mind you, the Protestant version of the Lord's Prayer. What we were being made to understand between the flag and the Lord's Prayer, was that we were growing up in a country in being white (Elizavlle Elementary was segregated; I had no black classmates until the fifth grade) and Protestant was the norm, the template.

(If you think that is overstatement, recall that when I was in the fourth grade and John F. Kennedy was running for the presidency, there were open questions whether a Roman Catholic could be elected president.)

We see today a widespread synthetic nostalgia for a white Protestant America that never quite existed. You only have to keep in mind that there are black families in today whose seventeenth-century ancestors made them Americans a century before my Scots-Irish ancestors arrived.

That nostalgia feeds in to a cluster of concerns among older white people: economic insecurity (the result of three decades of Republican policies, abetted by Democrats, that privilege corporations and wealthy people over working-class and middle-class Americans), cultural anxieties (gay people getting married, mouthy women being elected to high office), and relentless demographic trends (the inexorable growth of a non-white population that will exceed the white one).

I responded today, perhaps unwisely, to a Facebook post that presented a confused melange of anxieties about Sharia law, immigrants and people who are being told to go back where they came from. (Hey, if you're not Native American, you're not from here.) Amid all the strident talk, it might be helpful to keep a few simple truths in mind.

Item: The United States is a secular republic. The Constitution is explicit that all people who adhere to any religion, or no religion, are on an equal footing.

Item: Sharia law is not replacing civil law in this country, any more than Torah law and Roman Catholic canon law are. Though it does seem to be Christians who appear to be most active in attempting to get religious doctrine written into the law books.

Item: The 3.5 million Muslims in the United States look unlikely to leave anytime soon, so it might be a good idea to learn how to live with them as fellow citizens.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Obama and the racial divide

Accustomed as one is to encountering utterly daft remarks online, it’s still possible to stumble upon one so blindingly stupid as to take one’s breath away.

This morning I came across a comment from a woman castigating the news media for refusing to recognize how much Donald Trump has done as president to heal the racial divide in this country that Obama started.

By my count, our racial divide dates from 1619, when the first enslaved people were imported.

It was plainly present in the constitutional debates of 1787, when the notorious compromise of counting each enslaved person as three-fifths of a person in the census to give the slave states the politircal heft they demanded as the price of entering the Union.

The racial divide was on display in the compromises of 1820 and 1850, again to placate the slaveholders, and most certainly on display in 1861-1865, when the cost of ending slavery was more than 600,000 human lives and the destruction of the South’s economy.

One might say that a racial divide developed, or widened, after the stolen presidential election of 1876, after which white supremacists were permitted to regain political control of the former Confederate states and enact a raft of Jim Crow laws.

One might have spotted a racial divide in the twentieth century, in the segregated military, in voter suppression, in the legislatively and administratively endorsed redlining of city neighborhoods.

One might have surmised that a racial divide existed when screaming crowds of white men and women opposed allowing children of color into integrated public schools, or when Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, Viola Liuzzo, James Reeb,  Jonathan Daniels, and many others were assassinated for attempting to help black people get to vote.

I did discern a racial divide in this country associated with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency (twice, incidentally, with substantial majorities in the popular vote and Electoral College each time). What I saw was that a black man in the White House became an emblem for white people who feared that demographic and cultural changes threatened their fragile sense of superiority. They were quite right to see white supremacy in danger, and their rage and resentment are continually on display.

What I didn’t discern—and perhaps some of you can help me here—is just what President Donald Trump has done to heal that racial breach, beyond bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tiger Woods.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Fifty years ago ...

As Elwood P. Dowd in the Senior Class production of Mary Chase's Harvey at Fleming County High School, May 8-9, 1969, with Toby Fried, right, as Vita Louise Simmons and Molly Rigdon, left, as Myrtle Mae Simmons.

Miss Lynda McKee, the director, said afterward, "John Early, you were better than Jimmy Stewart, because Jimmy Stewart played Jimmy Stewart and you played Elwood Dowd."

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Breaking into newspapering

In the spring of 1968, when I was a junior in high school. Lowell Denton, publisher of the weekly Flemingsburg Gazette in Fleming County, Kentucky, offered me a job for the summer.

His wife, Jean, who was editor, reporter, and columnist, liked to take the summers off, and Lowell, having spotted a letter to the editor I had written to the Times-Democrat, the other county weekly, decided that I had enough literacy to handle the job.

So that summer, for my first paying job ($1.25 an hour), I sat down at a table with a Remington standard typewriter and a stack of copy paper. My first task was to English the county correspondence. The Gazette engaged a group of older ladies in communities around the county to send in weekly social notes from their locales, and my task was to regularize the spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

Though I began as an editor, I was also a reporter.

Sent to cover the fiscal court (the county council), I quickly learned not to begin taking notes when the Rev. Owsley Crain began speaking, but to hold off until he more nearly approached his point. At the Ewing Fair, I had to get the names of the winners of the Beautiful Baby contest. (One summer, Mr. Pierce Million, who provided the sound system, played a scratchy recording of "Born to Lose" as the mothers and babies approached the infield.) I interviewed the superintendent of schools at summer's end about plans for the new school year. I wrote profiles of local citizens, often having to ferret out information from the inarticulate

I learned early on to pay attention to the typesetters. It was Cecil Pugh, who operated the Linotype, who pointed out that internment for interment had gotten into an obituary. Later, Lowell acquired a typesetter that produced a punched tape allowing the typist to delete a line with a mistake and start over; when the tape was run through a dummy machine, it produced a galley of the corrected type. The typesetter was my cousin Marie Arrasmith, who was also the bookkeeper, and I paid close attention to her, because her store of local gossip was encyclopedic.

I wasn't all writing and editing. I collected the mail every morning, took classified ads and social notes over the phone, fetched colas and snacks from the gas station across the street, typed subscribers' addresses on stencils for the Addressograph, later in the offset era drove the pasted-up pages to the printer in the next county, drove the finished papers back, helped with the addressing and bundling, and swept the office on Friday afternoon.

Jean Denton wrote a column, "Jean's Jottin'," and in the summer it became "John's Jottin'," the main burden of which was to offer congratulations to local worthies. I was allowed a separate column of my own, "From the Wastebasket of John E. McIntyre," in which I wrote about things I had read and offered naive liberal political comments. (Lowell, remarking on my enthusiasm for Eugene McCarthy that summer, asked someone, "Is John Early still supporting that Communist?")

Jean was harder-shelled than Lowell, the kind of Republican once described as "rock-ribbed," a Nixon loyalist to the end, and beyond. We got along fine, because in spite of political differences we shared a taste for Ross Macdonald's murder mysteries and an admiration for Joan Didion's prose.

Lowell and Jean were ideal employers. They encouraged me to learnt the craft and indulged my youthful excesses. (The Gazette's circulation was around 3,000 a week. There is a good deal to be said for making your early mistakes in a place where not many people see them.)  The six summers in high school and college that I spent working for them were an invaluable education.

The Flemingsburg Gazette was, in fact, my journalism school. As an undergraduate at Michigan State, I was told I couldn't take a journalism course without first undergoing Introduction to Communication. I took it for one term. The text was a crudely photocopied set of vapid essays by the department chairman, and we had to watch video of two other department faculty members who evidently thought that their feeble badinage constituted dry donnish wit. At the end of the term I took all the course materials and dropped them down the incinerator shaft at East Akers Hall.

When in 1980, abandoning an uncompleted dissertation in English, I approached The Cincinnati Enquirer for an opening on the copy desk, I had enough grounding as an alumnus of The Flemingsburg Gazette to make headway there, and for all that has happened since I owe a profound debt of gratitude to Lowell and Jean Denton, who identified and encouraged promise.

Monday, January 21, 2019

I'll stand with government workers

My mother, Marian Early McIntyre, was the postmaster in Elizaville, Kentucky for twenty-four years, much of that time as a federal employee before the Postal Service was spun off.

She pretty much saw everyone in town every day and was quite accommodating to the patrons, even the difficult ones. We lived upstairs (it was a one-room post office), and she often opened up to hand out mail to people who had been unable to come by during regular hours. She was diligent, too; her accounts tallied exactly every month.

Of course she was a Democrat. (I've remarked elsewhere that the reason government workers are Democrats is that they are the people who believe that government works.) She and my father were Franklin Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy Democrats. I do, however, suspect (nothing was ever said aloud), that they may have voted for Senator John Sherman Cooper, of whom they always spoke with respect.

For her, as for many federal employees, the pay was modest, but the post offered health insurance for the family and a decent pension.

She saw her job as providing a necessary service to people, and she did it gladly. That is why I do not mutter or grumble when there is a long line at the post office. I know that the employees are trying to accommodate all the patrons, even the difficult ones, for modest pay and benefits.

And I think that that is the case for many, perhaps most, federal employees, working with little acclaim to provide the services we need or want. I'll stand with them, particularly the ones who find themselves in distressed circumstances because of an unnecessary government shutdown begun as a political stunt.

They deserve much better. 

Saturday, December 1, 2018

We pause now for a brief commercial announcement

As you consider your holiday gifting (yes, gift is a verb and has been for centuries; get over it), you might consider a small book of seventy pages, costing no more than a couple of repulsive Starbucks concoctions, that tells writers what they need to know.

I mean my [cough] own The Old Editor Says, readily available from Amazon.  For the tyro or the pro, it is a compilation of hard-learned and easily remembered maxims about writing and editing, useful for self-editing, the hardest kind.

Slip it into a stocking or use it as an amuse-bouche before a more substantial gift. It can be read in an hour, but its value is enduring.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled internet surfing.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Making them stand

Newsweek has published an article about India Landry, an 18-year-old student who was expelled  from Windfern High School outside Houston last year after repeated refusals to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance.

She is suing the principal, other school officials, and the school district. Ken Paxton, the state attorney general, is backing the school.

Under state law in Texas, students are expected to stand as the Pledge of Allegiance is recited each day. In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette held that “the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits public schools from forcing students to salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Texas evidently attempts to circumvent the Constitution by requiring under its statute that a student's parent or guardian must approve the refusal to stand; the individual student does not have the right in Texas. It will be interesting to see what the courts have to say about that.

But apart from the legal and constitutional issues, I'd like to make this point: Coerced patriotism is more the mark of a totalitarian regime than of a free society.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

White people should take a calming breath, or go for a walk

Of course, paying any attention at all to Laura Ingraham cuts into our limited time on this side of the turf, but people are posting some particularly ignorant remark of hers, and it irritates me. Here it is:

"The America we know and love doesn't exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don't like ... this is related to both illegal and legal immigration."

I realize that some white people are nervous about the prospect of having to treat non-white people as if they were fellow human beings and citizens or something, but let's look at the record.

African-Americans have been here since 1619, and a great many did not arrive voluntarily. This means that there are black people in this country today whose ancestors have been here longer than Laura Ingraham's. They have been citizens since the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, and they vote as citizens, despite repeated attempts to repress their franchise.

Puerto Ricans have been American citizens, by the Jones-Shafroth Act, since 1917.

There are Spanish people in the Southwest whose ancestors were here before there was a United States.

We know that our national history shows repeated anxieties about strangers, strangers usually including anyone not white and Protestant. Benjamin Franklin worried about all those German speakers in Pennsylvania. Some people were so exercised about the arrival in the 1850s of Irish and Italian immigrants, with their weird papistical practices, that they formed a political party (the American Party, natch, though the nickname Know-Nothings is more resonant) to halt their arrival.

And on and on until the current moment of white fragility and the opportunists keen to exploit it.

Two things to keep in mind:

1. These people are not going away.

2. This is the nation we chose to make.

Love it or ...

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

I know where I come from

My parents, Raymond and Marian Early McIntyre, spent their entire lives in Fleming County, Kentucky, in Appalachia.

They graduated from high school in Elizaville, their twelve grades in the same school I entered, with eight grades in five classrooms. My mother was the Elizaville postmaster for a quarter-century. My father worked for many years as an engineer for the state highway department; I have driven on roads he helped to build.

And when I went to school at Michigan State University, they were a little apprehensive, fearing that they would be seen as "country" by the cosmopolitans of East Lansing. (That distant rumbling is the sound of thousands of Michiganders snorting.)

I bring this up because a little while back I got into one of those fruitless online political discussions with some people back home in Fleming County. One of them ultimately accused me of dismissing him as an ignorant hick. The interesting point is that I had not said that. I had chivvied him about being too credulous about right-wing memes of questionable accuracy, but I had not disparaged his origins.*

I know who I am and where I come from. I am the child of Raymond and Marian McIntyre, who were devoted and supportive parents, and good citizens. Also good Democrats: Roosevelt, Stevenson, Kennedy Democrats, progressive Bert Combs and Ned Breathitt Democrats.

My father's mother had a sister who was in the DAR, so I suppose if I did the research I could claim an ancestor who fought in the Revolution. My great-great-grandfather on my mother's side bought the land that became the family farm in 1862, so the family link to that land lasted a century and a half.

I am a child of Appalachia, and I had the benefit of growing up among good people. I had teachers like Frances Dorsey and Linda McKee, dedicated to the profession. (The people I was arguing with had some of the same teachers; they had the opportunity to learn how to think more independently.) I had as employers Lowell and Jean Denton of the Flemingsburg Gazette, where I began to learn journalism. They helped me become who I am.

I have never been ashamed of where I come from, have never attempted to conceal my Kentucky heritage, though I am aware of the stereotypes many people have about Kentuckians. (It's not just coastal elites; there are people in Ohio, who think that way, if you can credit it.)

It doesn't do any good to be ashamed of your people, and it doesn't do any good to shame others because of their people.

My Scotch-Irish ancestors chose to live in a scorned backwater like Appalachia because they weren't wanted back in Britain. Our founding colonists were mostly considered trash by the people back home.

The Germans who fled the draft and endless eighteenth-century European wars were not esteemed here; Benjamin Franklin worried that they would ruin Pennsylvania, in part because they didn't speak English. You know if you're Irish that your nineteenth-century ancestors who fled famine were openly despised in this country; a political party organized against them. And the same with the Italians, the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Eastern European Jews, the Chinese and Japanese in California, the latter of whom we interned in concentration camps during the Second World War for no reason other than blind prejudice.

And today people from Mexico and Central American are being called vermin by the descendants of people who were called vermin in their own time.

It doesn't do any good to be ashamed of your people, and it doesn't do any good to shame others because of their people.

* One of the parties to the conversation thought it a crushing retort to call me a "libtard," but I long ago took the measure of the type who is noisy in the schoolyard and mute in the classroom.