The writers and editors at the New York Times evidently need to feel a lot more linguistic insecurity than they do. On the editorial page of today’s paper (August 30th) I was appalled to read the following, in a discussion of McCain’s choice of Palin as his VP: “That really is the only criteria for judging a candidate for vice president.” Don’t they know that “criteria” is the plural and “criterion” the singular? It should (of course) be “that…criterion”; it can only be “those…criteria”. You hear the mistake in conversation fairly often–but on the editorial page of the NY Times! Deplorable. Pathetic. Contemptible. And obviously it’s not just one person who doesn’t get it; a lot of people must have let that pass. Some serious knuckle-rapping needs to be done there–or firing. And while I’m on the subject, people have to stop saying “phenomena” when they mean “phenomenon”–using the plural when they mean the singular. But I bet there won’t even be any embarrassment in the editorial offices of the Times over this “criteria” fuck-up–as if only the most pedantic of pedants would even notice it. I threw the paper across the room when I read it.
Speech carries various anxieties. Fear of asserting what is false should count as the most serious–inadvertent falsehood, as opposed to plain lying. The philosophical skeptic taps into this fear, making assertion seem perilous. In the 20th century fear of meaningless utterance became acute: it was all too easy to confuse the grammatical with the meaningful and end up spouting nonsense (the positivists tapped into this fear). This is more disturbing than the skeptical insinuation, because while truth is not transparent we feel that meaningfulness should be. Another linguistic fear, though, is the fear of cliche, of saying the hackneyed and over-used. I’ve always had a dread of this form of linguistic calamity and will go to almost any verbal lengths to avoid cliche–and yet the fear of it still dogs me. How can anyone still permit themselves to utter the phrases “emotional roller-coaster”, “voracious reader”, “like a deer caught in the headlights”, etc? I wouldn’t be caught dead with that stuff coming out of my mouth. What other linguistic fears are there? It would be interesting to compile a list and then impose a taxonomy. Speech is always an arena of anxiety, is it not?
The other day I was on the tennis court alone, practicing my serve. From nowhere I heard a sudden loud noise, like an explosive. I couldn’t make out the source but then I noticed a flattened can on the other side of the court, about fifteen feet way. I went over to investigate and found a squashed can of corn beef hash, full, heavy. It had evidently been dropped from above the court, at least twenty floors up (the building has 44 floors and faces the tennis court). The act of dropping it had clearly been intentional and the purpose was presumably to scare me. If it had hit me on the head, it would certainly have killed me, such was the power of the impact. Reflecting on the incident later, it occurred to me that this was a minor act of terrorism: the purpose was to infuse an ordinary, peaceful activity–playing tennis–with fear and anxiety. And it worked: since that day I am always looking up and the calm of my tennis has been replaced with a kind of dread. Terrorists have made even the quotidian and tranquil into a zone of fear. Boy, would I like catch the person who did it. There is something nauseatingly sinister about the terrorist intention: to remove peace of mind.
How well understood is motion, really? Physics is supposed to be the science that predicts and explains all motions of matter; it describes the laws that govern the forces that move things. But there are some big gaps. The motions of particles are notoriously unpredictable and inexplicable at the quantum level, but at the cosmic level we have the problem of explaining galaxy acceleration–the universe is expanding more slowly than the calculated amount of matter in it would make us expect, given the accepted rules of gravity. Physicists have taken to speaking of “dark matter” a what accounts for the extra pull, but there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of such a thing–and isn’t the idea of intrinsically invisible matter an oxymoron? It’s just sheer handwaving. So we don’t know why the cosmos is movingas it is. Do we know why animal bodies move as they do? Doesn’t the mind play a role in “determining” these movements? But physics has nothing to say about the forces that govern the mind and its capacity to induce motion. I sometimes wonder if any motion has really been explained.
I recall reading somewhere that Keynes criticized Russell for saying that the problem with the world is that people are irrational and that the solution is that they should become rational. It seems a fair comment on Russell–but why is it a criticism? Because Russell’s observation is a datum not an explanation: we want to know why people are irrational andhow to improve their rationality. It’s obvious what the problem is and also what the solution would be–but we need to know what causes irrationality and what we can do to fix it. Freud had a kind of theory of this but nowadays it looks pretty wacky. There seems to be a big theoretical gap here, urgently needing to be filled. (Of course, we won’t recognize it if we start doubting that rationality is a robust matter.) I don’t have a theory myself–human irrationality can seem the oddest and least adaptive trait of the species–but I do think we need to work on it. Why do people go around believing silly things and acting idiotically?
The New York Times (as well as AOL) today ran a picture of a lesbian couple getting married in California: Del Martin, 87, Phyllis Lyon, 84. They are holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes, lined and grey and not long for this world; they have been together for 50 years. Doesn’t it make you feel embarrassed that discrimination and prejudice have prevented them by law from getting married all these years? Doesn’t it seem just utterly ridiculous? All this stuff about marriage being between a man and a woman: it’s just complete whooey. I really wonder what all those anti-gay-marriage twits out there think and feel when they see a picture like that. Do they feel their own marriages under threat because these two old ladies are finally able to tie the knot? I think we owe them an apology myself.
Despite my many misgivings about our prized political system, it did manage to elect Barack Obama to be the Democratic nominee. I’m pleasantly surpised at my fellow man. It’s not just his color, but also his calm, measured style, and obvious moral quality. But his color is, of course, highly significant. I can hardly think of a better thing for this country, and the world, than that he should be elected president. Political and moral progress is possible. Many blacks reported tears in their eyes when the announcement of his nomination was made; mine were damp too. This is a Big One. There’s nothing quite so gratifying as seeing a horrible prejudice smashed to pieces.
I am struck by this passage from Tocqueville: “I have previously stated that the principle of the sovereignty of the people hovers over the whole political system of the Anglo-Americans. Every page of this book will reflect certain fresh instances of this doctrine. In nations were it exists, every individual takes an equal share in sovereign power and participates equally in the government of the state. Thus he is considered as enlightened, virtuous, strong as any of his fellow men.” Toqueville’s point is that democracy presupposes that each person is as competent and virtuous as any other. But of course this is false: people differ widely in intelligence and virtue. Note that he says “considered” not “really”. So democracy rests on a lie. How, then, to defend democracy? Well, if truth, reason, virtue, etc are not objective qualities that people exemplify to varying degrees, but are rather relative to each person, we have a way out: everyone is as smart and good as anyone else to himself. Then democracy rests on no lie, since everyone really is cognitively and morally equal. Relativism steps in to save democracy from its noble lie. Thus relativism finds a foothold. But relativism is rubbish; so where does that leave democracy?