Dear Reader (I know you’re somewhere under that pile of Doritos bags),
This pandemic has yielded many terrible things, caused great sorrow, and required great sacrifices. Deaths, heartache, closed businesses and lost jobs, heightened domestic and international tensions, cancelled weddings and lamely Zoomed graduations: the list goes on and on.
I do not want to minimize the importance and gravity of such things. But let’s face it, lots of people are writing about these things—giving voice to the voiceless, calling attention to the tragedies, celebrating the indomitable spirit of those staring death in the face every day. But I ask you, Who—who!?—will speak up for the murder in plain sight of the distinction between “less” and “fewer”? You, Lieutenant Weinberg!?
Every day, on a bipartisan basis, Republicans and Democrats, journalists and politicians, America Firsters and Globalists, rather than let the silky butterfly of “fewer” alight upon the flower of proper usage, cram down the leaden, fecal moth of “less.” And they do the same thing in reverse, because this metaphor doesn’t require strict adherence to logic, taking the pristine application of “less” and sullying it in the sewer of misplaced “fewer.”
Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump, Anthony Fauci and Andrew Cuomo—they are all equally guilty. Talking about “less cases” or “less deaths” when they mean “fewer cases” or “fewer deaths.” A cursory Nexis-Lexis search finds no fewer than 18.34 sextillion examples.
I know what you’re saying, “You have to inflate the doll, after you get in the van. Otherwise the neighbors will talk.”
Sorry, that’s someone else.
You’re saying, “I couldn’t care fewer about this.”
Oh wait: You’re not saying that! Why not? Because that would make you a monster.
As noted lexicologist and grammarian Dr. W.A. Yankovic notes, “Less” is for “mass nouns” while “fewer” is for “count nouns” (not related to Baron Verbs or Duke Adjective). For instance, you would say “less money,” but “fewer dollars.” A good rule of thumb is that if something can be counted, it’s fewer. If it’s something that can’t be counted or is more abstract, it’s less.
So “less death,” but “fewer deaths.” Less disease, but fewer COVID-19 cases. More music and Les Nessman—oh wait, that’s WKRP.
Well, I think it’s time for less pedantry in this “news”letter—and fewer dad jokes.
As the aforementioned guy with the van and the air pump said to the cop: I’ll get off this in a second, but I feel like I should be honest with you. I have all but lost hope that I will persuade people to use these terms correctly. Really, all I want now is company for my misery. I want to be a super-spreader for the disease of pedantry simply to increase the ranks of the annoyed, to expand the remnant of the grammar-tweakers.
Almost 20 years ago, my friend Nick Schulz explained to me that you shouldn’t say things like, “The reason I inflated the doll is because we are in love,” or, “The reason people don’t sit next to me on the bus is because I wear a spaghetti strainer codpiece.”
The reason that you shouldn’t say sentences like that is not that they are disturbing, or a good way to con the draft board. Rather, it’s because “The reason … is because” construction is wrong, like syrup on a steak or vegan shepherd’s pie. “The reason … is because” basically means “Reason is the reason,” which is the kind of tautology that makes Harry Mudd’s androids shut down like France during a general strike (or a Tuesday). “Reason” and “is because” have the same job in the sentence, and two is a crowd.
Now, the reason I bring this up is that I have never forgiven Nick for telling me this. It’s like a gnostic curse. People—especially Mike Pence!—break this rule literally almost as often as they misuse literally—and each time they do it, I wince like someone jabbed a thumbtack into my septum, even though it really doesn’t matter. Everyone knows what the speaker means, and my life would be better if I’d never known about this. I want to be normal. I want to enjoy the bliss of grammatical ignorance. But I can’t. So I want to spread the infection, like the guy who sings Hall and Oates songs just to infect other people with an earworm. I’m like the vampire that just wants someone to share the life of the damned with. I am in a dark place, and I just want to be fewer alone, not have less people sharing my affliction.
Motte & Bailey, cont’d.
So yesterday Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and I got into a brief Twitter spat. She tweeted:
Teddy Schleifer @teddyschleiferScoop — Bill Gates is exploring ways to convince other billionaires to donate more for coronavirus. Ideas that Gates has considered include launching a new COVID fund for billionaires who signed the Giving Pledge, per sources. https://t.co/y1Dx9XaC2k
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez @AOCIf only there were some public fund billionaires could pay into along with everyone else that helps fund our infrastructure, hospitals, and public systems all at once. It could even be a modest % of what they earn every year. We could have an agency collect it and everything https://t.co/g0vI45xnYG
And she replied:
You might recall we recently discussed the Motte & Bailey style of arguing here. Make a sweeping statement—“people named Todd smell like cabbage” —and when challenged, retreat to a more defensible claim—“all I’m saying is that Todd from accounting smells like cabbage.”
Ocasio-Cortez insinuates that billionaires don’t pay taxes, when in fact the top 1 percent pays roughly 37.3 percent of all individual income taxes, which is more than the bottom 90 percent (30.5 percent).
She was responding to a report that Bill Gates, who has promised to spend billions on the coronavirus and has paid an estimated $10 billion in taxes, is trying to get other billionaires to spend more on it. Under his existing “Giving Pledge” initiative, he’s corralled a half-trillion dollars in charitable giving. And Ocasio-Cortez’s immediate thought isn’t “Wow, thanks!” but it’s to mock Gates and people like him as free-riders.
Her response wasn’t technically a Motte & Bailey argument but more of a non sequitur that contained one. She claimed that I didn’t read the Green New Deal “legislation” she proposed and then claimed it wasn’t really legislation—as in, a law—at all, just a “non-binding resolution of values” that would cost nothing if passed.
Now, that’s a motte bigger than the Twinkie that Egon Spengler describes in Ghostbusters. I happen to remember when she first unveiled her version of the Green New Deal pretty well. I wrote about it quite a bit at the time. In interview after interview, she was asked how she would pay for her proposal. I remember plenty of times her explaining how we could do it through taxing, borrowing, or printing trillions of dollars. She also said that it would pay for itself by creating jobs. But if she ever said, “Oh, it won’t cost anything at all because this is entirely non-binding and merely an expression of our values,” I missed it.
Here she is on NPR in what I believe was her first interview on the subject, saying all of these things—except for the part that it wouldn’t cost anything.
Now, I should say that my claim that you could take every penny from the entire 1 percent and not pay for the Green New Deal is debatable; I just think I’d win that debate. I was talking about money the 1 percent basically has on hand. But it’s true: If you forced the top 1 percent to liquidate their companies, sell their houses and stocks, you could theoretically raise the $50 trillion to $100 trillion that the full Green New Deal would undoubtedly cost—even if you included Medicare for All, which alone would run about $32 trillion. So yeah, if you want to go Full Bane and kick the 1 percent out of their homes and seize their companies, the GND might be affordable.
Of course, any effort along those lines wouldn’t raise anything close to the paper-valuation of existing assets, because people have this funny tendency to avoid having all of their wealth confiscated. But you get the point.
Over at The Bulwark, Richard North Patterson offers a fairly pristine example of a genre of left-wing anti-conservative scolding when it comes to science. Now before I go on, I should say upfront that I agree with the gist of many of his criticisms of some right-wingers and their response to the pandemic. For instance, I think the surge in anti-vaccine talk in some fevered corners of the right is dangerous, disappointing, and embarrassing.
But on the whole, I detest this sort of argument because it takes a natural human (or even American) phenomenon and turns it into a partisan cudgel. Polls and studies have consistently showed that anti-vaxxers exist on both sides of the political divide. But ask yourself, who has more cache with the mainstream media and elites: Robert Kennedy Jr. or Michelle Malkin? Who did more in the last two decades to promote anti-vaccine theories?
It’s true that in recent years—as the issue has changed from safety to parental rights—the numbers have shifted, with conservatives being somewhat more opposed to mandatory vaccinations than liberals.
And that’s sort of my point. One’s attitude toward a specific scientific issue is often determined by other ideological considerations. Patterson cites polling that shows conservatives are more anti-evolution. I am not going to claim that those polls aren’t reflective of real attitudes out there. But some of that is people understandably reading the question as an assault on religious beliefs and refusing to play along. This is a phenomenon that is well established in survey research. Some Republicans tell pollsters things they don’t believe because they infer—correctly—that the finding will be weaponized by people they can’t stand.
A large majority of women say they disagree with the proposition that life begins at conception. I am sure that some percentage don’t actually believe that while still saying they do, because they understand that saying otherwise gives support to those who would restrict abortion. Just as some Republicans question the science behind epidemiology because they care about parental rights, some Democrats question the science of reproduction because they care about abortion rights. Science has been a boon to the pro-life cause, but we never hear that pro-choicers are “anti-science.”
Pretty much every major Democratic candidate said during the primaries that climate change is an “existential threat” to humanity (It’s not, if you take the plain meaning of the term “existential threat” literally, or even seriously.). But nearly all of them insisted that we can’t expand—or even use—nuclear power because nuclear power is “super-icky.” (I paraphrase). That sounds pretty anti-science to me.
You can do this all day. The notion that men can get pregnant or have periods is not driven by fidelity to science but to politics, and fidelity to politics often requires a lack of fidelity to science. When research into sex differences yields results the left doesn’t like, it’s “pseudoscience.” When it yields information that empowers women or makes dudes look bad, science is awesome again. For years, the left led the charge on opposing genetically modified crops and it still considers geoengineering (see: using science to fix the climate) to be a moral horror. When you only like science when it confirms your priors, you aren’t really aren’t the science-worshipper you claim to be.
On the latest episode of The Remnant I talked with Paul Matzko a bit about the “Paranoid Style in American Politics”—an argument first put forward by the political historian Richard Hofstadter. I firmly believe there’s a paranoid style in American politics. I also believe there’s a paranoid style in every other country’s politics—and we’re pikers compared to the Turks, the Iranians, the Russians, and even the French when it comes to crazy conspiracy theories. But I also believe there’s a paranoid style in human politics, because we’re pattern-seeking animals and sometimes that steers us in bad directions. Sometimes the paranoid style is anti-science, sometimes it’s anti-capitalist or anti-government.
Sometimes this tendency manifests itself more on one side of the ideological spectrum than the other. But no side owns it.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: So Pippa and Zoë don’t know it yet, but their time at the beach is winding down. It’s time, and not just because I feel like we’re pressing our luck on the alligator front. Pippa gets too excited on the beach and her limp has come back as a result. She’s also developed an ear infection, which we’re treating. But in the meantime she is a canine propeller. Zoë is still obsessed with the forbidden cave of mystery underneath the back porch, and Pippa is getting to be a problem with her constant demands to go back to the beach. If, 15 minutes after going to the beach, you get up to go the bathroom, she leaps up like we’re about to go on her first adventure of the day. If I’m sitting on the back porch and cast my gaze upward for a nanosecond, she brings me a ball or a frisbee with that “We’re you looking for this?” expression. I will say, I’ve really loved the morning walks at first light, before the beaches get crowded with people and dogs and the wind blowing on their canine nethers turns themintopuppies. They’regooddogs.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.