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.
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.
And now, the weird stuff