The Truth Has Its Moment
The war in Ukraine is exposing our silly political games.
Dear Reader (including those free-speech-defending thought criminals at the New York Times),
Years ago, the Goldberg family went through a brief Cincinnati-style chili phase. We don’t talk about it much, and we’ve gotten over it, but I feel like this is a safe space where I can share painful truths with you, my dearest readers. Anyway, in case you didn’t know, among the things that distinguish Cincinnati-style chili—other than disappointed local sports fans using it to soak up large amounts of beer—is that it is often served over spaghetti.
Anyway, when my daughter was 4 or 5 years old, she was walking in the winter air with the Fair Jessica, who said something like, “Brrr. It’s chilly outside.”
Lucy paused for a moment, and then kid-splained a key insight: “Mommy. You can say it’s ‘chilly outside,’ but you can’t say it’s ‘spaghetti outside.’”
It’s funny because it’s true. Although since then, on very cold mornings, I have in fact said, “Man, it’s spaghetti outside.”
As should be obvious to even the least-attentive reader, this anecdote leads seamlessly to Confucian philosophy. In The Analects, Confucius argues that society can get into trouble when words don’t line up with reality. His disciple Zi Lu (a terrific dancer by the way) asked Confucius what he would do first if put in charge. Confucius responded, “First it is necessary to rectify the names.” His most famous explication of this idea is as follows:
A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.
It’s worth noting that many scholars believe Confucius’ main point was political. It gets complicated, so I’ll summarize with indefensible glibness. Duke Chu of Wei, the ruler of Jin, refused to recognize his dad as his father, preferring to call his grandfather his father. This had all sorts of relevance for politics I’m not equipped to explain. But it did prompt Confucius to say, “A monarch must be a monarch, a minister must be a minister, a father must be a father, and a son must be a son.”
And that’s a good enough place to move on from. Just as it would cause all sorts of confusion if TV weathermen said, “Bundle up, it’s spaghetti outside,” using the wrong words for things creates problems. If a surgeon asks for a scalpel and the nurse hands him a hamster, no one benefits—the hamster included.
The great disconnect.
On a more subtle and complicated level, I think a lot of our problems today stem from a mismatch between words and things.
George Orwell’s brilliant and indispensable essay “Politics and the English Language” is a fantastic primer on some aspects of the resulting dysfunction when the manipulation of words takes precedence over the description of reality.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
Language is incredibly powerful. Think of it like the ocean. You may know exactly where you want to swim to or row to. But if you’re not cognizant of the currents, undertow, waves, etc., it’s easy to get pulled in a direction not of your choosing. Language does this to us all the time, under the best of circumstances.
But this analogy fails to capture the challenge we face today, because unless you’re Aquaman, it’s hard to weaponize the ocean or its currents. But we live in an age where the manipulation of words and images (another form of language) is intertwined with politics, culture, class, and economics in ways we’ve never seen before.
Beyond the usual partisan and ideological explanations—which have a lot of merit—for why there’s so much resentment of “the media,” there’s a deeper phenomenon at work: a profound sense that the class of people in charge of describing reality want you to believe in their preferred version of “reality.” Right-wingers see this not just in journalism, but pretty much everywhere. But many on the right are blind to it when it comes from the right. Similarly, left-wingers see it wherever the right has the space or platform to offer a contrary or conflicting account of reality but tend to be blind to it from their own side. Fish don’t know they’re wet and all that.
This isn’t solely about politics. It’s just easiest to see what people are up to in the political realm.
Changing reality—i.e., the facts on the ground—is hard. But changing the words we use to describe reality is much easier, and we’ve never had more tools to do exactly that.
If you fail to achieve a desired result, one recourse is to redefine what success looks like. Such games have been the stuff of politics, bureaucracy, and even war for millennia. “Consider for instance,” Orwell writes, “some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.’” Instead, he writes, “Something like this”:
While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.
He’s largely forgotten now, but during the Obama years, linguist George Lakoff monetized the manipulation of words as a substitute for thinking hard about public policy. People don’t like trial lawyers? Just rebrand them as “public-protection attorneys.” Voters think taxes are too high? The saps are simply enslaved to bad language, according to Lakoff. Just redefine them. “Taxes are what you pay to be an American,” so call them “membership fees.” The stupidity of these kinds of arguments rests on the assumption that Americans who think taxes are too high will suddenly change their mind if you call them something else. I don’t like getting punched in the face, even if you call it a “facial massage.” It’s like when the Clinton administration famously renamed “rogue states”—like North Korea or Iran—“states of concern,” as if changing the name would change the reality of the problem.
The transgender issue is an obvious flashpoint in this. The other day, I saw the latest attempt to bend reality to language. Apparently in some quarters the preferred term for women who menstruate is “bleeders.” But let’s move on, because I can’t improve on the res ipsa loquitur-ness of that.
I’ll also skip my now familiar rants about scrapping “mother” for “birthing person” or the ridiculousness of the label “Latinx.” But such examples are a good illustration of how names are sorely in need of rectification. Latinx was born in some academic bunker as a way to describe a vast, polyglot group of actual human beings that do not see themselves as part of the same homogenous group the academics do. If Latinx stayed in the seminar room it would be harmless. But it escaped the lab and infected political elites. And when you confuse the name for the actual thing, as Democrats have, you end up treating square pegs like they’re round.
And because human beings aren’t pegs—round or square—they get pissed at the attempt to erase not just their individuality, but their communal distinctiveness. Sure, Mexican Americans in Texas have similarities with Puerto Ricans in New York or Guatemalan immigrants in California, but the similarities aren’t nearly as meaningful to members of those groups as the differences. Likewise, if you want to reduce the culture, history, ethnicity, experience, religion, and socio-economic status of roughly 250 million people to “white people” you’re going to find yourself making assumptions that have little bearing on reality.
A YouGov poll released this week had a fascinating finding: Americans have very unrealistic—as in not comporting with reality—ideas about the demographic makeup of America.
I have some methodological and definitional quibbles, but even if the poll is merely directionally correct (and I think it is), it says something really profound about our society. If the average American thinks nearly one in three fellow Americans are, respectively, gay, Jewish, atheists, or immigrants, the average American doesn’t have a great grasp on the reality of America. If you think one in five Americans makes a million dollars a year when in reality the number is more like one in a thousand, you might be more inclined to believe Democrats when they say the rich can pay for everything.
I’ve argued with college kids who think the proof of America’s racism can be found in the “fact” that blacks are so underrepresented in everything from higher education, to Hollywood, to big business and politics. That obviously has some truth to it. But when you ask them how many Americans are black, they will often say anything from 25 percent to 50 percent. Blacks make up 12 percent of the population. That doesn’t mean problems of underrepresentation or inequality don’t exist. But such confusion can force people to misjudge the scale and scope of the problem.
And let’s be clear. Even if everyone understood the numbers accurately, we’d still have the problem of people thinking that they understand the root causes of a problem by the end results of the problem. Disparities in outcomes—of women in the workforce, minority educational achievement, economic inequality, whatever—are boiled down to familiar generalizations about racism, sexism, capitalism, etc. as if such conclusions accurately describe the myriad variables that led to those results. The average woman earns less than the average man because of “sexism,” not because women and men alike make different choices based upon their personal preferences, or because bearing children has downstream consequences.
Some of the poll’s findings may have more to do with things like widespread innumeracy, but even so, there’s no way to look at something like this as anything but an indictment of our elites. And I don’t just mean educational elites or political elites, I mean that whole vast stratum of people who drive the national “conversation.” We get our ideas from popular culture as much as we do from schools, journalists, and politicians. And the way elites talk—in the broadest sense—about America is wildly disconnected from the reality of America.
So let’s talk about the elites most central to that conversation—politicians, pundits, and intellectuals generally. Elites are always vying for power and influence (see: “Royalty, Real and Imagined”). And one of their key tools for doing that is claiming to speak for large constituencies of non-elites. The enablers of populism on the left and right alike love to claim (or pretend) that they are speaking on behalf of “real” Americans, the “silent majority,” the authentic nation, the “working class,” the “makers” (as opposed to the “takers”), etc. Invariably, they exaggerate not merely the number of people they are speaking for, but the very idea that the people they are speaking for have any clue these supposed leaders speak for them. They also exaggerate the coherence of their constituencies. In other words, lots of folks who speak on behalf of black people or Christian people or really any group of people pretend that their constituency, in its entirety, believes X. (Of course, if an ideological opponent speaks sweepingly about the same group, they’re suddenly attacked for “stereotyping” a diverse community).
I don’t think there’s any way to fix such generalizing in politics, in part because generalizing is central to politics and political rhetoric. But if Americans had a better understanding of reality, they’d be more immune to the excesses that define our politics today. When voters are armed with facts, politicians are constrained in what they can lie about.
Which brings me to another tool of elites: Claiming that “their people” are being oppressed, disrespected, or short-changed. Of course, sometimes this is true. But it is almost always exaggerated. Our culture rewards victim status. If it didn’t, Jussie Smollet wouldn’t have faked a hate crime and the MAGA crowd wouldn’t wallow for years in being called “deplorable” by a single bad politician.
Large swaths of our national conversation have been hijacked by victimization merchants. How many college courses could be more accurately renamed “victim studies”? How many cable hosts would be scrambling for copy to fill their monologues if they couldn’t inveigh about how the audience is being treated unfairly? I have no problem with calling out injustice. In fact, I think it is a moral requirement. Where we run into problems is when elites care more about wielding the cudgel of “injustice” than actually dealing with the thorny, complicated, and often very inconvenient facts that yield said injustice, real or imagined.
To borrow from Julien Benda, many of our intellectuals are simply in the business of “organizing political hatreds.”
The Ukrainian moment.
I think there’s too much wish-casting about how the invasion of Ukraine and the pro-Ukraine consensus will squash populism (I also think there’s too much wish-casting from those who think it won’t). But one of the upsides of this utterly tragic and grotesque crisis is that a bunch of “leaders” who claimed to be the authentic voice of the people—or at least of the right people—have been exposed as essentially paper tigers. It turns out that even conservatives who were sympathetic to the largely abstract and theoretical arguments for admiring Vladimir Putin quickly abandon any such sympathy the moment they see who Putin really is. Some of the demagogues and strivers who thought they understood their own constituency are now scrambling to get right with reality and their own troops. And some are doubling down on their own irrelevance, scrambling to attain their own victim status as truth-tellers amidst a time of hysteria. The only problem: They’re not truth-tellers. They’re liars and frauds, and everyone can see it. In the blink of an eye, the same people who monetized and celebrated hysteria now pretend to be in favor of sober restraint.
The task of rectifying the names is herculean and this sad chapter will not come close to completing the work. But, in this moment, it is heartening to see the cobwebs of bullshit get cleared, at least for a moment. America is a good country, NATO isn’t a sucker’s game, the West is not a spent force, Russia does not offer a meaningful alternative to the American experiment, Volodymyr Zelensky’s statesmanship proves that heroic leadership is possible and can come in surprising forms, Putin is evil and people who claimed otherwise were either dupes or frauds, military force in the face of evil is noble, and military force in the pursuit of evil is evil. Policy differences endure, as they should. But the reality of the situation is plain for people of good will to see. Truth is having a moment.
It’s a terrible price to pay for such rectification, but the value of it is something to be welcomed, and built-upon.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: Zoë and Pippa are doing great. Pippa’s joint problems have finally subsided as she has come to understand the benefits of restraint. It was a lesson hard learned. Zoë had one of her rare “let’s play ball” moments recently. And the aroos are in ample supply. Meanwhile Gracie continues to be more defiant. Her deference to Zoë’s demands wanes by the day. The only sour note—more like a sour symphony—is that the tooth-pulling remedy for her bad breath did not take. I finally identified the smell: third-world fish market at the end of a hot day before the surfaces are hosed off. It’s not always that terrible. But sometimes it’s enough to make your eyes well up.
And now, the weird stuff