Obscure Words and the Purpose of Communication

Obscure WordsOver the weekend, Martin Longman asked a surprisingly deep question, “What’s your favorite word that you would never use in ordinary conversation?” A couple of people answered with expletives. Most answered with extremely obscure or specialized words like “depauperate.” But a few got at what I think is the heart of question with well known but not base vocabulary words like “scurrilous.” The word that immediately came to my mind was “pulchritude.” It’s a doubly hexed word, because the adjective — pulchritudinous — is totally unwieldy. But the point, at least to me, is that the vocabulary I use depends upon who I am talking to. And I’m not very comfortable with that.

It is never my intention to use words that set me apart from other people. What’s more, I hope I never use language to show off my erudition — especially given that I am not all that well read compared to people I admire. Regardless, I’d like to think that I am confident enough about who I am that I don’t have to pretend to be more than I am. At the same time, there is a balancing act here. When communicating with others, you want to relate as equals. But you also want to be authentic, and sometimes I feel like a jerk when I make an awkward substitution.

There is a lot of judgement going on in doing this kind of thing. And that’s something that really bothers me. At the same time, I don’t think I look down on people with more limited vocabularies. For most of my life, I was the guy who was asking, “What does that mean?” And I’ll still ask that. I don’t feel that I have anything to prove; I’m just happy to learn a new word. But am I not depriving people around me of the same joy?

I don’t think that I am. My experience is that most people do not look forward to the opportunity to learn new words or whatever other knowledge clogs my brain. And if they do, they will let me know. You see, I don’t think I change my spoken vocabulary based upon my estimation of the listeners vocabulary. Rather, I change it based upon my assessment of their interest in such matters. I use whatever words come to my mind when I am talking to my close friends. For one thing, they already know that I’m a pretentious git, and they are too in their own ways (although they may not cop to this). And I know they will ask me if I use an odd work.

Any time that I’m interacting with someone I don’t know really well, I’m putting on a show for them. I’m trying to make the whole thing go smoothly. You don’t use nuance after dialing 9-1-1. And most of my personal interactions strike me as akin to a kind of emergency situation. Like a dysfunctional family during Christmas, I am just trying to get through this thing. With my friends, I can more be myself.

But I absolutely cannot imagine a time I would use “pulchritude” anywhere except as a joke. The reason is that the word “beauty” works as a perfect substitute. There are words that say more about the speaker than what is being said. “Pulchritude” is one of my favorites. And since I don’t ever want to use the language for that ignoble purpose, I don’t use the word even with friends.

Fighting Racism With Kids So We Don’t Have to

Corey RobinIn 1959, Dissent published an article by the German-Jewish émigré philosopher Hannah Arendt. A criticism of desegregation and a defense of states’ rights, “Reflections on Little Rock” was controversial, offensive, and wrong-headed in almost every way. But one point — beyond the immediate question of integration, about which she was wrong — Arendt got it right. Why, she wondered, do we “burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve?” It’s an age-old dream, she acknowledged in a reply to her critics, that “one can change the world by educating the children in the spirit of the future.” But doesn’t that dream just shift “the burden of responsibility from the shoulders of adults to those of children”?

In the United States, we often try to solve political and economic questions through our schools rather than in society. Instead of confronting social inequality with mass political action and state redistribution, we prefer to educate poor children to wealth. Education can involve some redistribution: making sure, for example, that black, Latino, and working-class students have comparable resources, facilities, and teachers as white or wealthy students. But one need only compare the facilities at the Park Slope school my daughter attends with those of an elementary school in East New York — or take a walk around James Hall at Brooklyn College, where I teach political science, and then take a walk around the halls at Yale, where I studied political science — to see we’re a long way from even that minimal redistribution.

—Corey Robin
The One Percent’s White Privilege Con

Muslim Prejudice and Media Bias

Ahmed and Zahara Al-JumailiMax Fisher wrote another thoughtful article over the weekend, The Murder of Ahmed Al-Jumaili in Texas Should Be a Front-Page Story. It’s about the mysterious murder of a recent Iraqi immigrant. But I think Fisher was being a bit sarcastic when he wrote, “But it seems odd that Americans, who pride themselves on inclusiveness and tolerance, would be so blithe and so uninterested [in this story].” As Fisher’s article documents, Americans embrace their intolerance. While Americans may pride themselves on their tolerance, they don’t practice it. They have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future. During World War I, we persecuted Germans, so we took a pass and moved onto the Japanese in World War II. Now it is the Muslim’s turn. In fifty years, we will be onto some new group having not learned any general principles.

No one knows if Al-Jumaili was killed because he was Muslim. He seems to have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time — but it could very well have been a premeditated act. The fact remains that Dallas — where he had immigrated to just three weeks earlier — is a hotbed of Islamophobia. Fisher described recent anti-Muslim protests over a program designed to foster tolerance, “Stand With the Prophet Against Terror and Hate.” This brought out people who said charming things like, “We don’t want them here” and, “We’re here to stand up for the American way of life from a faction of people who are trying to destroy us.” Just like them Japs, am I right?!

Max FisherBut let’s suppose that Al-Jumaili was just killed in a random act of violence committed by a small group of men. What does it say about our country that a man flees violence in Iraq and gets gunned down outside his home within three weeks of coming to America? It is ironic that Americans are so concerned about the Islamic State when it poses effectively no threat to them. At the same time, they are absolutely fine with people roaming the streets with guns. In 2013, over a thousand people were murdered in Texas. (Generally, about 75% of all homicides are committed with firearms.) But these people not only want to go to war with the Islamic State, they want to kick Muslims out of the country. Maybe that would be doing the Muslims a favor.

Fisher put this particular murder into modern American media context in a way that I find frightening:

If Islam had been the religion of the shooter rather than the religion of the victim, if police suspected a motivation of Islamic extremism rather than a possible motivation of anti-Muslim extremism, the murder would have been enormous national news. But because the shooter was perhaps instead motivated by extremist Islamophobia (again, at this point an unconfirmed but widespread perception), and because it was the victim rather than the killer who was Muslim, it hardly caused a blip.

In this particular case, I don’t mind that it hasn’t gotten much coverage because it is more bizarre than anything. But it does bother me that Fisher has nailed this. If a Muslim had killed some non-Muslim as he stood outside his house with his wife taking pictures of freak Texas snowfall, the media would be all over it. It wouldn’t matter that we didn’t know the motivation of the shooter. It wouldn’t matter if there was no indication of motivation at all. It would be big news. Obama would be expected to make a statement about it. The right wing would be going crazy.

And that’s my takeaway from all this. The problem is not that the media don’t care when Muslims get killed. The media in general don’t care when anyone gets killed — there are almost two per hour: dog bites man. The problem is the media freak-out whenever a Muslim kills someone. This is the very definition of prejudice: being skeptical of a particular group of people. Given the freak-out when a Muslim does kill someone, we know that it is actually rare. But it isn’t reported that way. Instead, it is reported as if it were the leading edge of an invasion. We’ve seen this before: again and again and again. And every time, Americans have had their reasons for why it was the right way to think. And we have our reasons now. And they are no better than they were in the past.

Delusions of the Obama Administration

Dan PfeifferJonathan Chait published an “exit interview” with Dan Pfeiffer, On Learning to Ignore Republicans and How the White House Gave Up. It contained some interesting quotes that I’ll get to in a moment. But despite Chait’s claim, the interview wasn’t that revealing because it only reinforces something I’ve known for some time: that the Obama administration got all the way to the Debt Ceiling crisis of 2011 before realizing that they couldn’t negotiate with the Republicans. I thought they were naive to ever think that. But certainly after all the Obamacare negotiations when not a single Republican voted for the law should have told Obama and his team everything they needed to know.

Instead, they had to wait until the Debt Ceiling crisis to learn this. And think about that. If we had (and I certainly don’t rule out our doing it in the future), it would have done untold damage to the world economy. Keep that in mind as you read the following quote from Pfeiffer about what he now thinks about the Republican leadership:

I’ve always believed that the fundamental, driving strategic ethos of the Republican House leadership has been, “What do we do to get through the next caucus or conference without getting yelled at?” We should never assume they have a long game. We used to spend a lot of time thinking that maybe Boehner is saying this to get himself some more room. And it’s like, no, that’s not actually the case. Usually he’s just saying it because he just said it or it’s the easiest thing to solve his immediate problem.

I think this is entirely correct. And these are the guys that the Obama administration allowed to almost crash the economy. And we are still living with this. It isn’t just Boehner who is worried about solving the immediate problem. I’m already thinking of the next time that Boehner and his hoards are going to hold the world hostage over the debt ceiling. Coming this Fall at a capitol near you!

Pfeiffer contrasts what people who have worked in the Obama administration have learned compared to what former Clinton staffers took from his presidency. The Clinton people came into the administration thinking that the Republicans could make deals. Well, that was doubtless true in the mid-1990s. But this also shows why it might have been a good idea if Obama hadn’t filled his administration with a bunch of Clinton New Democrats. After all, they are all people who — when they are alone with them — agree with Republican politicians on economic matters. They are all one big happy neoliberal family, even if the Republicans claim to be something else to their voting base.

And this relates to the ultimate lesson that Obama has learned: that it is a fool’s game to try to appeal to the supposed middle between Obama’s moderation and the Republicans’ proto-fascism; going progressive is what works best. Here’s another great quote from Pfeiffer:

As we were preparing for the potential that we would lose the midterms, a lot of the advice we got around town was, “You have to show major contrition; heads have to roll; you have to give some sop to the Republicans.” The president’s view was, “No, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to go out and we’re going to be the opposite of contrite; we’re going to be aggressive in our policies and our politics.” And that worked. It caused people to cheer. But that’s the exact opposite of the sort of advice you’d get in this town.

But then one has to wonder why the administration was ever listening to the Villagers? I’m not brilliant and I haven’t followed politics closely for very long. But regardless of what side, it has been clear to me that these Very Serious Fools don’t know anything. I was saying the same thing after the 2012 election when they were all claiming that the Republicans needed to change. I wrote again and again that there was no reason for the Republicans to change and in the end, the Republicans did not change — at least not in the way that the Villagers wanted them to.

The Villagers are involved in a kind of dream magic. They think that if they talk about their dreams of Tip and Ron having drinks together, their collective “centrist” — actually socially liberal, economically conservative — wet dream will come to pass. What kind of naivete does someone have to have to think that the world actually works like this?

Well, there was one telling quote:, “[Obama] had hopes of being able to change the polarization, not just in the country, but in Washington.” So changing polarization in Washington is harder than in the country? Washington isn’t part of the country? I think it is that kind of thinking that is the root of the problem with the Obama administration. They are involved in their own kind of dream magic. But I’m glad they’ve grown up a bit.

Morning Music: Galaxy Song

Monty Python's The Meaning of LifeAs you may know, I’m quite fond of Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life. The film is a musical — with at least two major numbers, including the truly amazing “Every Sperm Is Sacred.” If you haven’t seen it in a while, it is worth checking out. I think you may find that you like it a whole lot more than you did when you first saw it.

One of the songs in the film doesn’t get the kind of production that it deserves, “Galaxy Song.” (I’m not sure why so many people call it “The Universe Song.”) It may be that they all thought the song was so great (and it is) that it didn’t need much of a production. Regardless, here it is especially for this Sunday morning when you aren’t in church:

Birthday Post: Yuri Gagarin

Yuri GagarinOn this day in 1934, Yuri Gagarin was born. He was the first name in space. It’s interesting to look back at that time, because the Soviet Union was totally dominating the United States in the “space race.” And the truth was that many people in America were concerned that the Soviets were beating us for exactly the reason that we now claim that they were doomed: central planning and collective action. Good ol’ Yankee individualism triumphs in the end! But there is a fundamental problem with this narrative about how the US caught and eventually surpassed the Soviets: it’s wrong.

The US out-competed the USSR by also using central planning and collective action. Americans live in thicker and more varied denial than any other group on the planet. And I really think we ought to wake up from our very dangerous slumber. That’s especially true with all this recent talk about Mars One. Even if it were to ever happen, eventually there would be a crisis and the government would have to step in. Whether it would or not, is unclear — but those are the kinds of resources that are necessary.

So we rightly celebrate Yuri Gagarin as a hero. But what he did is what we did. Some claim that the greatest accomplishment of the Soviet Union was the US moon landing because of how the USSR motivated American lawmakers. It works the other way too. And to my fellow Americans who wonder why our manned space program petered out in the 1970s, I suggest you look at where the resources of the nation went. That was the beginning of the end of shared benefits from productivity. More and more money went to the wealthy. Less and less money came in from taxes to the point where it is almost impossible to raise taxes, even as they sit at historical lows. We have learned the wrong lessons from history. We have decided that government can’t do anything, even though it put humans in space. And so we have impoverished the government and now the rich are our masters. And that’s why we aren’t going to Mars.

Happy birthday Yuri Gagarin!