Ways of talking and writing change over time, and whatever is new tends to get, at first, a reputation as the royal road to communication hell. A lot of folks persist in believing that Twitter, for example, is a seedy digital neighborhood populated strictly by thumbsuckers and tub-thumpers.
And sure, Twitter is home to masterful suckers and thumpers, and every other kind of scoundrel. But it’s no monolith. Comedy Twitter, Apellate Law Twitter, Manchester United Twitter. You can find one Twitterverse enlightening and another bruising, but increasingly those who dismiss the whole service – which has long included such dignitaries as Imani Gandy and Garry Kasparov and J.K. Rowling – are just plain wrong.
Concerned citizens of the United States should at least follow Congressional Twitter. There, hundreds of our elected representatives make jokes, wax patriotic and, depending on their sensibilities, castigate either the president or his adversaries.
And every now and then, Congressional Twitter busts out a plot twist that will make you forget that an HBO series featuring Starbucks cups and dragon incest ever existed.
Such was the case last weekend, when Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., a staunch libertarian who for years has used social media to report his votes and explain his political reasoning, broke free of his party’s stifling talking points.
Amash laid down a 13-track LP – OK, a 13-tweet thread – that played like a particularly great saxophone solo. In the end, he advocated no less than the impeachment of President Trump for, as he put it, “conduct that violates the public trust.”
The occasion for Amash’s thread (and for a couple of follow-ups on Monday and Thursday) was that he had, brace yourself, gotten all the way through the Mueller report on Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election. He had some opinions about it.
In contrast to Trump’s auteur approach to Twitter – no one tells me what impromptu war to start with my 280 characters – Amash emphasized off the bat that he had solicited ideas for the thread.
“I offer these conclusions only after having read Mueller’s redacted report carefully and completely, having read or watched pertinent statements and testimony, and having discussed this matter with my staff, who thoroughly reviewed materials and provided me with further analysis.”
Amash was not content to employ the president’s baby-talk distortion of the report, the laughable claim that the report cleared Trump of collusion and obstruction of justice. Instead, he had his own “principal conclusions,” as he tweeted, borrowing Atty. Gen. William Barr’s language, if not his truckling or his deceit.
“1. Attorney General Barr has deliberately misrepresented Mueller’s report. 2. President Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct. 3. Partisanship has eroded our system of checks and balances. 4. Few members of Congress have read the report.”
Thus began the essay that’s a model of the form. It’s not a piece of propaganda or an effort at meme-making; it’s an authoritative polemic. Declarative sentences. Standardized spelling. Each point building on the one before it.
In tweet 7, especially, Amash pulls no punches: “Mueller’s report identifies multiple examples of conduct satisfying all the elements of obstruction of justice, and undoubtedly any person who is not the president of the United States would be indicted based on such evidence.”
Some seem to use the label “libertarian” as code for a set of cable-news postures: “gun lover” or “government hater.” Not Amash. A graduate of University of Michigan Law School, he missed one of 5,374 roll-call votes between 2011 to January 2019. He’s nuanced, meticulous.
On the other hand, he also has a bro side, common to young libertarians: “Our Constitution is brilliant and awesome,” Amash tweeted. (Dude, you’re charming, but don’t get carried away.)
In short, Amash’s thread is an A+ use of Twitter that has Republicans jumping to discredit him as a secret Democrat instead of a lib-owning redhat. The charge is not sticking. His thread is its own defense of his authenticity. And if you won’t read the Mueller report for yourself, it’s among the best glosses yet of those 448 pages. Right there on Twitter.
When the Old Testament was first translated from Hebrew into Latin, the book defined the term vulgar – it was common, and popular – so much so that it became known as the Vulgate.
When Latin poetry gave way to English poetry among English speakers, it was derided as pop for the unwashed masses. Then, poetry gave way to workaday prose and the novel was considered an ignoble form for the unsophisticated.
Newspapers – forget about it. People who read disposable broadsheets and tabloids at the turn of the 19th century were clearly too dumb for books of philosophy, poetry or even fiction. Poor slobs, they were not looking for wisdom or moral instruction: just sports scores, job listings, and news of wars and elections that might be immediately entertaining or useful.
You can guess where this is going: Twitter. Twitter is clearly the vulgar vulgate of our time. It’s overcrowded; it’s slangy; it’s loud and addictively entertaining. But it’s also a place where freethinkers can pick and choose – across class, race, station, gender, geography, religion, politics – their intellectual teachers, sparring partners, nemeses and fellow travelers. And if, as Amash did, you produce a clear signal amid the noise, people listen and pass it on. Twitter is indispensable for making meaning in these chaotic times.
Someday, we’ll scoff at whatever replaces the tweet, saying, “Ah, remember the stand taken by Justin Amash? We were such ladies and gentlemen in those days, so engaged, so eloquent – with our hefty disputes and elegant threads. You kids with your whatever – so uncivilized and illiterate!”