Looking for Policy Solutions in the Dictionary

A culture obsessed with the performance of language thinks it can solve problems just by finding the right vocabulary to describe them.

Dear Reader (Including those of you letting David French live rent-free in your intra-cranial studio space), 

In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon allegedly says Rome’s slide into decline was a period in which “bizarreness masqueraded as creativity.” Alas, I haven’t been able to find the Gibbon quote in the book(s)—then again I’ve also never been to Lima, Peru, but I’m perfectly happy to take it on faith that it exists.

Anyway, whether he said it or not, this observation struck a chord with me. It’s a bit reminiscent of the famous distinction drawn by Hubbins and Tufnel: “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” But I think there’s a subtle difference. Most stupidity isn’t bizarre, and not all cleverness is necessarily creative.

I know I’ve mentioned it a few times before, but I think it’s worth repeating one of my favorite scenes from Don Quixote. I’ll paraphrase:

A man walks to the center of town and invites a crowd to watch the show he’s about to put on. The man then picks up a dog and inserts a tube into its rump. He begins to inflate the dog. The crowd watches, fascinated. The dog grows larger. Eventually, the man pulls the tube out and lots of air noisily escapes, fart-like, from the dog’s butt as it runs away. The man turns to the crowd expectantly and asks: “You think it’s easy to inflate a dog with a tube?”

I often bring this up when someone tells me there’s a lot of effort behind stuff I think is artistically unimpressive or worthless. I have no doubt it took some doing for Piero Manzoni to defecate in a can and call it art, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I have to be impressed with his artistry (even though one can argue it was simultaneously clever and bizarre). It wasn’t easy to make all the Transformers movies—I couldn’t do it—but that doesn’t mean I have to be impressed with the end result.

One of the themes I’ve been harping on—a phrase that entered the language in the 1500s, which originally meant to play the same string over and over again—is that we as a culture have given words too much power. I’ve already done more recycling than an old fashioned girl scout paper drive, so I won’t repeat all of my arguments. Suffice it to say that any society where people can plausibly claim that violence is speech and speech is violence has a problem grasping some fundamental distinctions; it’s lost the ability to distinguish between bizarre and clever. I think this stuff is most prevalent and intellectually developed on the left, but it’s in the cultural groundwater now (the defenders and minimizers of January 6 often pay hypocritical tribute to this sort of thinking in myriad ways, but I’ll avoid going down that rabbit hole).

I think what unites cultural combatants on all sides is the weight they give to taking offense. Not everyone thinks offensive speech is equivalent to violence, but being offended has become a new American pastime. Indeed, offending your opponents—and taking offense at their reciprocal efforts—is now the primary means of cultural combat and the coin of the realm as well.

Here’s a good example I heard about from Katie Herzog, via Bari Weiss’s newsletter. A medical school professor told his class:

“I don’t want you to think that I am in any way trying to imply anything, and if you can summon some generosity to forgive me, I would really appreciate it,” the physician says in a recording provided by a student in the class (whom I’ll call Lauren). “Again, I’m very sorry for that. It was certainly not my intention to offend anyone. The worst thing that I can do as a human being is be offensive.” 

His offense: using the term “pregnant women.” 

“I said ‘when a woman is pregnant,’ which implies that only women can get pregnant and I most sincerely apologize to all of you.”

Let’s put aside my well-known objections to people—particularly those who insist they “believe in science”—claiming that men can get pregnant and look at this statement: “The worst thing that I can do as a human being is be offensive.” 

The ancient Persians practiced a form of torture called “scaphism.” Victims would be set adrift in a stagnant pond, tied to two floating logs or small boats. But before that, they’d be stripped naked and smeared with milk and honey. They’d also be force-fed even more milk and honey so that they developed irrepressible diarrhea—the better to attract biting insects, which would not only feast upon their flesh, but lay eggs in various places most people would, all things being equal, not want eggs laid. They’d then be left to float in the sun for days or weeks until they died of sepsis, exposure, or dehydration.

Call me crazy, but on the hierarchy of the worst things human beings can do, that ranks at least a few notches above offending people, never mind saying “pregnant women.” Other things that edge out offending people: murder, genocide, animal abuse, conning old ladies—or gentlemen!—out of their life savings, and distracting a surgeon by constantly tapping-out the Jeffersons theme song on your glass eye with a ballpoint pen while he’s trying to perform a heart bypass.

None of this is to say that offending people is harmless, never mind desirable or good. But sticks and stones and all that.  

Can’t fix the problem? Fix the words.

While perambulating my canines the other day, I heard a segment on the radio show MarketPlace. I generally like the show, in part because it’s very well done, but also because it’s attitudinally left-of-center and thus covers economics and markets outside the “rah-rah capitalism” bubble I am all too familiar with. I often learn things from it. But it lives in a bubble all its own.

The piece set out to ask, “Can changing home appraisal language help close the wealth gap?” The headline is a little misleading because it doesn’t include the word “racial” between the words “the” and “wealth,” and that’s what the story is really about. And it’s a legitimate issue.

Anyway, apparently Fannie Mae thinks it can alleviate the wealth gap by purging racially-loaded language from home appraisals. The value of homes in “black and brown” communities are often set lower than in white neighborhoods and that fuels the intergenerational wealth gap over time. 

Now, I have no objections to looking at such things. The racial wealth gap is real and I have no problem believing it’s significantly related to property values. But here’s my problem. The sorts of phrases Fannie Mae wants to get rid of are ones like “crime-ridden” and “integrated community.” I’m still trying to parse how “integrated community” is obviously racist, given that liberal politicians often boast about how integrated their communities are. Other terms we’re told are racially coded include “desirable community” and “safe neighborhood.”

On the one hand, I think reasonable people can agree that these phrases are sometimes used euphemistically in undesirable ways. But I think reasonable people can also agree that sometimes they’re not “code” for anything. Not everything is subtext, some things are just, you know, text. Some neighborhoods are, in fact, crime-ridden. Some are safe, some are not. Some have good schools, some don’t. The communities that are safe and have good schools are—regardless of race—more desirable than ones that are not.

You can get rid of all of these terms in favor of more neutral or even woke language, but the new language won’t make bad schools good and crime-ridden neighborhoods safe. In other words, you can do a lot with words, but words are not magic. And if you think that home buyers—and mortgage lenders—won’t find other ways to get accurate information just because of some new mandate to make appraisals more difficult to parse, you’re not only foolish, you’re begging for punishment from the god of unintended consequences.  

This is something my rah-rah capitalism friends grasp far better than the woke capitalism folks do: Markets are tools of discovery. Prices are tools of discovery. Successful investors—including home buyers—are the ones who utilize the process of finding new or relevant information better than others. Making the information-gathering process more complicated, opaque, or difficult won’t change the reality of the underlying information. But it will reward those who have the resources to gather information despite the obstacles put in their way. Again, complexity is a subsidy. Making home appraisals read like the minutes from a Yale Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity workshop is just as likely to reward market players with the time and resources to get to the truth. Again, I’m sure there are problems and abuses in the appraisal process, but the better—albeit harder—way to get rid of terms like “crime-ridden” and “safe neighborhood” is to get rid of crime and make neighborhoods safe.

The point is that everywhere you look, people think changing the way we talk about things is a substitute for changing the way things are.

Contra-contrarianism.

Which brings me back to bizarreness masquerading as cleverness (and yes, I’m aware of the irony of the author of this “news”letter complaining about bizarreness operating in the guise of cleverness).

The lowest form of cleverness—or what passes for cleverness these days—might be the belief that contrarianism qua contrarianism is smart. (I’m sure there’s a long history behind this idea, probably going back to Rousseau or the philosophes, but because I’m lazily recycling old arguments of mine I’ll lay the blame on Slate.) If everybody says X, I’ll say Y and show the world what a brave maverick I am. 

Look, sometimes being the person who says the emperor has no clothes is brave or bold (though in the original story, the kid just didn’t know any better). But if you shout, “The emperor has no clothes!” when the emperor is, in fact, fully dressed, you’re either an idiot, delusional, or both. In a land of flat-earthers, you’re a hero for saying the world is round. But when everybody is convinced the world is round—because it is—you’re wasting everyone’s time by insisting it’s flat.

The most annoying form of this stuff is when people aren’t even being brave or maverick-y because their contrariness is actually fan service trolling. They’re not contradicting anyone on their own “side,” they’re just picking the opposite position of the other side as if that alone was bold or virtuous. Charlie Kirk, who hawks fish oil for his aches and pains, paints himself as a bold truth teller dunking on Simone Biles as “weak.” Left-wing Oscar winners preen as if they’re courageously speaking truth to power when they tell their audiences exactly what they want to hear. 

Again, I’m sure some of this is baked into every society. But I think we’re heading into Rome-style decline when contrarianism turns into flat out denial of reality for fun and profit. Consider Eric Metaxas, who has become a self-styled prophet of asininity by telling his audience exactly what it wants to hear while pretending to be some kind of MAGA Jeremiah. Here he is explaining that you should refuse to take the vaccine, if for no other reason than because the government/everybody wants you to.

This is quintessential bizarreness masquerading as cleverness. You know what else the government wants you to do? Pay your taxes. You know what “everybody” says you shouldn’t do? Murder people.

Defenders of this kind of garbage will sometimes tell me that it takes real courage and effort to buck conventional wisdom like this, and that some rhetorical excesses are forgivable in the larger context of standing up to the powers that be or groupthink or some such.

I don’t buy it. This is false profit masquerading as false propheting. It also takes effort and a certain kind of courage to stick a tube in a dog’s ass and inflate it for the fart sounds, but that doesn’t mean it deserves any kind of respect or commendation. It does, however, mean that the dog is talking out his ass—or that Metaxas isn’t. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: Everything is pretty much as it should be on the quadruped front. The girls are getting their treats. Zoë is chasing rabbits and Pippa is thwarting her. Pippa tries to nap and Zoë thwarts her. Zoë even agreed to accommodate the spaniel in the shotgun seat this morning, albeit with some eye rolling. Chester spends much of his days waiting for the Fair Jessica to bring him tribute (I somewhat unfairly made him seem scarier than he is by photographing him mid-yawn). And everyone demands more love than they need, but not as much as they want. Nobody, including the bipeds, likes the hot weather.

ICYMI

Last week’s first Remnant, where my vocal double seized control

Biden’s ill-conceived attack on Facebook

Last week’s second Remnant on our education breakdown

This week’s crotchety first Remnant with Dan McLaughlin

America in retreat

The Wednesday G-File

This week’s second Remnant (recorded in person!) with Tim Carney

Reviving mask mandates is a step too far

And now, the weird stuff

An inventive approach

The rejected plot for Space Jam 2

Where can I get one of those?

The foulest crime

You’ll regret mocking him

The prisoner

That backfired

The ‘Rust of Memory’ Is Corrosive to Our Politics

Conservatives tend to be nostalgic for how they think people lived. Liberals tend to be nostalgic about times when they had power.

Dear Reader (and all the ships at sea),

Joe Biden loves to say, “America is back.” He used it to announce his incoming national security team last November. “It’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.”

Last February, there were a slew of headlines about his first big foreign policy speech along the lines of this from the Associated Press:

Biden declares ‘America is back’ in welcome words to allies.”

In that speech, Biden told diplomats at the State Department, “when you speak, you speak for me. And so—so [this] is the message I want the world to hear today: America is back. America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.”

That phrase—as well as those Biden-tells-allies-America-is-back headlines—keeps coming to mind every time I read about the inexorable advance of the Taliban in Afghanistan. For the Afghans, America was “here,” and now it’s leaving. I wonder how “America is back” must sound to the people feeling abandoned by America in general, and the guy saying it in particular. 

I’m not trying to pull on heart strings, so I won’t trot out the girls who will be thrown back into a kind of domestic bondage or the translators and aides who rightly fear mass executions may be heading their way. All I’ll say is that their plight does pull on my heart strings.

They’re back.

But let’s get back to this “America is back” stuff. For Biden, it seems to have two meanings. One is his narrow argument that we are rejoining all of the multilateral partnerships and alliances that Trump pulled out of or denigrated. Fair enough. I can’t say this fills me with joy, even though I disliked most of that stuff from Trump (the two obvious exceptions being getting out of the Paris Accord and the Iran deal). I think diplomacy often gets a bad rap. But I also think diplomacy is often seen as an end rather than a means. We want diplomats to accomplish things, not to get along with each other just for the sake of getting along. For too long, Democrats have cottoned to a foreign policy that says it’s better to be wrong in a big group than to be right alone.

But there’s another meaning to “America is back.” It’s an unsubtle dig at Trump and a subtle bit of liberal nostalgia all at once. It’s kind of a progressive version of “Make America Great Again.” It rests on the assumption that one group of liberal politicians speaks for the real America, and now that those politicians are back in power, the real America is back, too. But the problem is, there is no one real America. There are some 330 million Americans and they, collectively and individually, cannot be shoe-horned into a single vision regardless of what labels you yoke to the effort.

Liberals were right to point out that there was a lot of coding in “Make America Great Again.” I think they sometimes overthought what Trump meant by it, because I don’t think he put a lot of thought into it. He heard a slogan, liked the sound of it, and turned it into a rallying cry—just as he did with “America first,” “silent majority,” and “fake news.” Still, when, exactly,  was America great in Trump’s vision? The consensus seems to be the 1950s, a time when a lot of good things were certainly happening, but a lot of bad things were going on that we wouldn’t want to restore.

Liberal nostalgia is a funny thing. Conservative nostalgia I understand, because I’m a conservative and I’m prone to nostalgia (even though nostalgia can be a corrupting thing, which is why Robert Nisbet called it “the rust of memory”). Conservatives tend to be nostalgic for how they think people lived. Liberals tend to be nostalgic about times when they had power.

Consider the New Deal. Being nostalgic for the New Deal certainly isn’t about how people lived, not primarily. America was in a deep depression throughout the New Deal. Breadlines and men holding signs saying “will work for food” are probably the most iconic images of that time. Who wants to return to that? And yet, liberals will not banish it from their collective memory as something like the high water mark of American history. That’s why they keep pushing for new New Deals and slapping the label on new programs that consist of spending money we don’t have.

The only thing that competes with the New Deal in the liberal imagination is the 1960s in general and the civil rights movement and Great Society in particular. I’m reminded of a Washington Post interview with Howard Dean in 2003 in which he explained his nostalgia for that era:

“Medicare had passed. Head Start had passed. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the first African American justice [was appointed to] the United States Supreme Court. We felt like we were all in it together, that we all had responsibility for this country. ... [We felt] that if one person was left behind, then America wasn’t as strong or as good as it could be or as it should be. That’s the kind of country that I want back.”

“We felt the possibilities were unlimited then,” he continued. “We were making such enormous progress. It resonates with a lot of people my age. People my age really felt that way.”

That’s not how people his age felt back then. It’s how a certain group of liberals felt because they were winning. The 1960s and the 1930s were times of massive civic strife marked by race riots, domestic bombings, assassinations, and anti-war protests. But liberals were in charge, felt like history was on their side, and they had a lot of “wins” as Donald Trump might say.

The current obsession with the “new Jim Crow” seems like a perfect example of how liberal nostalgia distorts and corrupts. As I write today, I’m not a fan of the arguments coming out of the GOP or the Democrats. But the simple fact is that we don’t live in the 1960s—or 1890s—anymore. Whatever the future holds, it will not be a replay of that past. And that’s overwhelmingly for the good. 

I always find it funny that the same people who ridicule “excessive” fidelity to the timeless principles of the Founding as archaic are often also the same ones who worship at the altar of the New Deal and the Great Society. The Founders didn’t know about mobile phones and the internet! Well, neither did the New Dealers or the Johnson administration. But that doesn’t matter because the part they really liked and yearn to restore is timeless: people in Washington deciding how Americans everywhere else should live and work.

I don’t know how the White House’s new collaboration with Facebook to combat “misinformation” will actually play out and I’m not fully up to speed on what the administration really intends to do. Though—given press secretary Jen Psaki’s comment that “you shouldn’t be banned from one platform and not others,” etc.—it doesn’t sound good. But I think David French’s gut check is exactly right: “Moderation is a platform decision, not a White House decision. Trying to force more moderation is as constitutionally problematic as trying to force less moderation.”

The principle at the heart of that speaks not just to social media regulation, but to all of the competing efforts from right and left to throw aside the rules in a thirsty search to rule.

Making peace with superfluity.

Listeners of The Remnant know that I often find myself suffering from a peculiar form of nostalgia, for want of a better word. The title of my podcast comes from an essay by Albert Jay Nock, who was one of the “superfluous men” of the long Progressive Era that stretched—with a brief, and partial, parentheses under the sainted Calvin Coolidge—from the end of the Teddy Roosevelt administration to the end of the Franklin Roosevelt administration. I don’t agree with Nock, or the other superfluous men, on everything—they were a diverse lot. But the thing that connected them all—hence their superfluousness—was how they felt that they were standing on the sidelines as the major combatants at home and abroad competed over how best to be wrong, how to stir up populist anger for their agendas, and, most of all, how to use the state to impose their vision on the “masses.” The remnant was the sliver that wanted no part of any of it.

“Taking his inspiration from those Russians who seemed superfluous to their autocratic nineteenth-century society and sought inspiration in the private sphere, even to the point of writing largely for their desk drawers,” writes Robert Crunden, Nock’s biographer. “Nock made the essential point: ransack the past for your values, establish a coherent worldview, depend neither on society nor on government insofar as circumstances permitted, keep your tastes simple and inexpensive, and do what you have to do to remain true to yourself.”

Or as the great superfluous man of the Soviet Empire, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, put it, “You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”

I share this—yet again—as a kind of omnibus response to all of my critics these days and the ones yet to come. I’m lucky that I don’t have to write for my desk drawer, though I am reliably informed -- daily -- that many people would prefer I did. But I am going to continue to write for the remnant as I see it and those I hope to convince to swell its ranks, and not for those who think that to be against what “they” are doing I must endorse what “we” are doing. Our politics may be a binary system of competing asininities these days, but just because one side of a coin is wrong, that doesn’t mean the other side is right.

Various & Sundry

Animal update: The beasts are hot. It’s hot. And they almost don’t like it as much as me. Though Zoë and Pippa still understand that some work must be done. There’s not much new to report on that front, but I did visit my mom this week and caught up with Fafoon and Paddington (Winston stayed hidden the whole time). My late sister-in-law’s cats no longer live there. They had to find new homes because they just couldn’t deal with new cats, and neither could the established feline rulers of my mom’s house. Fafoon in particular found it very stressful to have new cats around and picked up the habit of bunkering in a basket for long stretches. She still does it. Anyway, we’re leaving town for a week. But the dogs are going to stay with Kirsten and we’ve arranged for Gracie to have a handmaiden at our house.

ICYMI

Last Friday’s G-File on everything and nothing

Last weekend’s Ruminant, a product of Western guilt

The week’s first Remnant, guaranteed to alienate my remaining nationalist listeners

Anti-vax kookery is really getting old

Who’s to blame for the culture war?

The week’s second Remnant, which may cause your bingo cards to spontaneously combust

Again, stop calling it Jim Crow

And now, the weird stuff

Fatal attraction

Why Springfield had Whacking Day

Thank you for smoking

Scheduling conflicts

Subway creates an entire website to defend its tuna

An alternative to Drag Queen Story Hour 

A ‘News’letter About Nothing—and Everything

Reality is infinitely more complex than the words we use to make sense of it.

Dear Reader (Including those of you who couldn’t spell “murraya” until this week),

When I was a kid in grade school—third grade, I think—we had an English assignment where we were supposed to write a story in class using all of the sense and action verbs we could think of. “Johnny smelled the flowers as he walked to school,” or something like that.

Ever the rebellious spirit, I wrote a story about a “man who did nothing.” “There once was a man who saw nothing, tasted nothing, heard nothing, did nothing” etc. I filled a couple pages with variations on this.

Now, I thought I was a genius. I finished first, and used the most verbs with the least amount of exposition. It was like the literary equivalent of that wager where you say, “I bet you I can say all 50 states in 20 seconds.”

Then once the sucker takes the bet, you say, “All 50 states.”

In other words, I Kobayashi-Maru’d that mofo, though neither of those terms were in my vocabulary at the time.

Alas, the teachers didn’t see it that way. They called my parents, deeply concerned that this may be some sort of cry for help. Such nihilism! Such existential dread for a kid in a terry cloth T-shirt with a bowl haircut.

I bring this up mostly to talk about nothing.  

I thought my meditation on nothing was really something to be proud of. Which brings me—duh—to the issue of doughnuts. Or, really, the fascinating nullity at the heart of the doughnut: the doughnut hole.

Is a doughnut hole a thing? I don’t mean the pastries our capitalist overlords have dubbed “doughnut holes,” which, if you think about it, are really just beignets. I mean the hole in the center of a dougnut. Is it a thing? I think it is. But it’s also nothing. Its very meaning is defined by the absence of a doughnut at the center of a doughnut. When you eat the doughnut, you don’t eat the doughnut hole, and yet by eating the doughnut you also destroy the doughnut hole. How can something be simultaneously nothing and something at the same time?

Let me back up. I recently came across the term dialetheism, and I’m a little embarrassed to say I didn’t know what it meant. So I poked around and found this great short discussion about the metaphysics of nothing (which I’m indebted to for this utterly indefensible “news”letter—at least so far—as well the first couple minutes of the Ruminant this week).

Anyway, a “dialetheia” is simply a statement that is both true and false, aka a contradiction. Now, contradictory statements are all over the place. Yogi Berra was famous for them. “When I came to a fork in the road, I took it.” “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”

English actually has a word for words that are contradictory: It’s contronym. You may have heard me rant about the word “sanction,” which means to allow and to punish. But there are scores of them.

  • Buckle means to connect and to fall apart.

  • Custom is a common practice and a special order.

  • Dust means to sprinkle small stuff on something and to remove the small stuff.

  • Fix can mean to repair or restore or to geld.

  • Garnish can mean to add some extra stuff, or to remove something (like garnished wages).

  • Left can mean to depart and to remain.

  • Rock conveys solidity and shaking.

I could keep throwing out examples, even though “throw out” means both to get rid of something and to present it.

Of course, these are just words. And words are weird. They may help us describe reality, but they aren’t real, if you know what I mean. They help us make sense of the world, but they can also fill our heads with nonsense. “My sister is jealous of me because I’m an only child” is a contradictory statement because it’s nonsense. Meanwhile, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded,” isn’t a nonsense statement; it just conveys meaning in a funny way.

Sometimes, nonsense statements serve as windows into the limits of language and logic. (Which reminds me: What do you call a waterfowl that spies on you from behind a window curtain? A peeking duck.)

The best example of this is the “liar’s paradox.” If I say, “This statement is a lie,” am I telling the truth? If you believe I’m telling the truth then the statement is a lie. But if you think I’m lying then the statement is the truth. And if you’re one of Harry Mudd’s android friends, thinking about this too much will cause you to self-destruct.

[Note: An earlier version of this “News”letter incorrectly referred to Harvey Mudd — which is a college in California, not a 23rd century rogue. I regret the error.]

Most of these paradoxes are kind of like the warnings at the edges of medieval maps that declared, “Here there be monsters,” or the sudden appearance of a black cat in the Matrix. They give us a glimpse of the limits of language to describe a reality that is often infinitely more complex than the mouth sounds we use to make sense of it.

Still, the question remains: Can actual contradictions exist in the real world that lies beyond the world of words? Can things both exist and not exist or be true and untrue all at once?

Formal logic says, “Nope.” Such things would violate one of the three laws of thought, namely the law of noncontradiction. As Aristotle put it: “One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time.”

A dialetheist is someone who believes such contradictions exist. The doughnut hole is both nothing and something defined by its nothingness. Zero is both a thing and not a thing, and it’s not-thingyness is what makes it such a powerful thing.

I know this will shock people, but I’m not an expert in quantum mechanics. But one of the reasons this fascinates me is that it seems to violate the law of noncontradiction, the way a violent, crapulent orgy of priests and rabbis would violate Judeo-Christian morality. Tiny junk can be in two places at once and exist in different forms at the same time. Unrelated, unconnected particles can seem awfully related and connected. Einstein dismissed this as “spooky action at a distance.” But quantum computing is trying to harness precisely this sort of thing.

Of words and things.

Whenever I try to understand quantum mechanics I get a similar headache to the ones I get when I try to figure out the plot of the movie Syriana or resolve the contradictions of Lost. I also get a newfound appreciation for Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

So let’s pretend this “news”letter is a burning plane full of rage zombies or vegans desperate to explain why you should give up bacon: Bail out while the bailing is good, and parachute back down to the world of words.

I think a lot of our problems today can be attributed to the confusion of words for things. When I started working on Liberal Fascism, a philosopher acquaintance of mine gave me some advice: “Don’t confuse words for things.” What he meant is that there are many labels people use to distort reality rather than describe it. If you compare what fascists did to what communists did, it quickly becomes apparent that the two things, while not identical, are far closer to identical things than opposite ones.

I’ve come to believe that we have a horrible glut of people who manipulate language for a living. I don’t just mean writers, though many are guilty of what I’m talking about (or, what I’m about to talk about). I mean the caste of people in our surplus of elites who think they can change reality by changing the language we use to describe it. Get everyone to use “birthing person” instead of “mother” and—ta da!—the massive storehouse of meaning the m-word represents will just disappear or be requisitioned in the way we want.

Perhaps the best example of this was the “Sokal affair,” in which Alan Sokal, a physicist, submitted an article to the journal Social Text in which he claimed that physical reality is merely “a social and linguistic construct.” The idea of “an external world whose properties are independent of any individual human being” was merely “dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook.”

This was catnip for hermeneuticists, postmodernists, and critical theorists—fields that have important things to say but often veer into the fallacy of thinking that words have some magical power over reality. That’s what Sokal was trying to demonstrate by submitting his deliberately ridiculous paper. He succeeded.

But while the incident is largely forgotten, the phenomenon Sokal exposed is everywhere—and not just among pointy-headed academics. Some of it is about power. As Orwell tells us in 1984, if you control the language, you control the argument, which means you control how reality is perceived. “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?” Syme tells Winston. “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.’”

At least this sort of enterprise has a certain cynical honesty to it. Lying and manipulating words for social control has been part of politics since the concept of the political was invented. Heck, it’s what made George Lakoff rich.

But the bigger problem isn’t that people are lying to manipulate people with words, it’s that they’re telling the truth as they see it. For a couple of generations now, we’ve been teaching some of our smartest young people that their interpretations of texts are entirely valid as long as they feel their interpretations are true. You can’t read Tom Sawyer because it has a demonic word in it, even though the larger meaning of the text stands in opposition to what the n-word stands for. I’m sure the linguistic commissars trying to ban the word “trigger” from trigger warnings believe they’re right.

And that’s the problem. We’ve moved from thinking texts are infinitely interpretable to thinking the world at large is just another text to be manipulated and reinterpreted.

In The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat argues that innovation in the intangible world of words and images—including the vistas of digital adventures—has overtaken innovation in the physical world. Or, as Peter Thiel once put it, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Of course, since he said that, Twitter has advanced to 280 characters while flying cars are still mostly on the drawing board.

Indeed, Twitter is a perfect illustration of my point. Denizens of political Twitter routinely mistake it for reality. Will Saletan pointed out something striking to me yesterday: Bernie Sanders won among Twitter users in the Democratic primaries, which would explain why so many of his fans on Twitter couldn’t understand how he lost.

The primary driver of politicized unreality is romantic in nature—by which I mean it’s driven by feelings.

I understand that people have always wanted the truth to be what they desire. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Wish is the father of the thought.” But it just seems to me that there was a time when people understood that calling a rose by any other name wouldn’t change its smell. I don’t think that’s as true as it once was.

The combination of the intellectual wet market that is our digital age with generations of educational indoctrination that elevates feelings over facts has led to a world where serious—or once serious—people can claim the 2020 election was stolen because they want it to be true. The lack of evidence for the theft is ackshually evidence of the conspiracy to hide it. People who aren’t black or Korean can “identify” as black or Korean because their feelings tell them it’s true. Others claim that blacks are suffering from “genocide” at the hands of police, that surgical masks are equivalent to the yellow stars of the Holocaust, or that vaccines make you magnetic. Activists say that men can have babies because it’s too hurtful to surrender to the Enlightenment-fueled hegemony of physical reality. 

Indeed, the ongoing war on Enlightenment principles is perhaps the grandest example of people confusing words for things. According to a lot of eggheads, starting with Rousseau, the Enlightenment poisoned the mind of the West and the only way to liberate ourselves is to do away with the ideological chains we inherited from it. Now, I’m not going to deny that the Enlightenment changed the way we think. But it primarily changed the way we think by illuminating reality (hence the term “Enlightenment”). The words and concepts created by the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution weren’t used to control reality a la 1984. They were words and concepts that allowed us to better understand the real world.

Sure, some people are just at war with the words and concepts we get from the Enlightenment, but a lot of them mistake the illuminated reality for mere words that are as malleable as we want them to be.

Indeed, if the greatest accomplishments of Western civilization get in the way of our feelings, then it’s Western civilization that has to go. For instance, if you think fatphobia is evil and the only way to get rid of it is to dismantle Western civilization, then you have no choice but to grab a crowbar.

Words are not nothing, but they’re far from everything. We’re creating a world where we think words have eldritch energies that can transform reality if we really, really mean it—and take as much offense as possible when people disagree. Maybe we need a Goldberg’s law: “Any sufficiently self-absorbed society will use language as if it’s indistinguishable from magic.”

Various & Sundry

Canine update: Zoë and Pippa were very glad I came home from my 10,000 year trip (three days in human time). The girls are getting really terrified about all the thunder. I don’t know why this happens to dogs when they get older, but it’s been true of every dog we’ve had (and yes, we’ve tried Thundershirts). The Fair Jessica bathed them both without me this afternoon, for which I’m grateful. But I’m not sure gratitude alone will make it up to her. The good news is that they now smell quite nice—a bit like corn chips in a bowl that used to have potpourri in it. They still don’t understand what the fuss about stinkiness is. Pippa can’t seem to get enough TLC and still doesn’t understand that the car cannot move when she’s in the driver’s seat. Zoë is still obsessed with her frog. Gracie, meanwhile, is still not getting the minimal amount of attention she feels she deserves

ICYMI

Last Friday’s G-File

Last weekend’s ranty Ruminant

The week’s first Remnant with Ilya Shapiro, recommended only for those fluent in legalese

California’s recall election is an indictment of both parties

It’s a trap!

The week’s second Remnant with Will Saletan on America’s war against reality

My final word on critical race theory (probably)

And now, the weird stuff

Justice for Pinchy

Well, it’s about time

Please don’t tell anyone how I live

You deserve a break today

The Breaking Bad spinoff we deserve

A cold-blooded criminal

Tactful cactus

You can’t kill the metal

Youthful rebellion

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