A popular t-shirt, available on Amazon from several suppliers for between $15 and $22, reads in big capital letters: “YOU MATTER.” Then, in smaller print beneath: “Unless you multiply yourself by the speed of light squared…then YOU ENERGY.” I like to think that this is a sign that the vogue for the most irritating formula now in favor with publishers, advertisers, and P.R. agents—“x matters” or “why x matters”—is finally beginning to wane. There is something more than defensive, almost desperate about it. It is an assertion of the personal will of its promulgator against the inexorable opposition of reality and time: I insist that x matters because there are now fewer and fewer people in the world to whom x does matter.

“Black Lives Matter” is up front about this, since its aggressiveness would make no sense without the presumption that the slogan’s originators are angry precisely because black lives don’t matter, or don’t seem to them to matter to the police or the powers that be. Perhaps it is also no coincidence that Mazda came up with its new slogan, “Driving Matters,” in 2015, just as the world was beginning to expect the next generation of motor vehicles to be self-driving.

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Yale University Press’s series of volumes under the rubric “Why x matters”

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