Trying to understand vigilantes. Failing.

Amber Elliott, currently director of the St. Francois County public health department in Missouri, resigns today, November 20.  She and her family are being harassed by angry citizens.

Kelly Vollmar is director of the Jefferson County Health Department and has faced the same kinds of abuse. [1]

I want to think about the case that is being made by the citizens who are doing the harassing and why they think this case justifies such actions.

That’s the topic.  But I really can’t just go to that question; there is really no way to simply ignore what these neighbors have been doing.  Here is a selection.

Ellott:

“There’s been many over the course of eight months, to personal attacks on Facebook calling me every name in the book, to calling me and cussing me and saying I’m stupid and I’m incompetent and I don’t know what I’m doing, of course the pandemic is fake, and all those type of things,” Elliott said.

People told her they were following her, that they were watching her. They took pictures of her, her husband and her two elementary school-age children in public and posted them online with remarks she doesn’t want to repeat.

Vollmar:

Vollmar said she has experienced harassment being a director as well. As a domestic violence survivor, she had worked to keep the location of her home private, but people searched her tax records, divorce records, committees she’s served on and posted information online to determine where she lived, she said.

A gun shop owner in the county uses his Facebook page to attack her credibility, warning that gun owners will “decide they’ve had enough of the lies.” Someone, she said, called her husband saying she was out with another man. People posted pictures of her on social media, altered to make her look like Adolf Hitler or comparing the health department to Nazis.

I am reminded very much of the use of the stocks as a public shaming device.  Some official body, church or town or both, decided that someone was guilty of something and put them of display so they could be ridiculed by their neighbors.  That always sounded really awful to me.  Consider, however, that these cases in Missouri are instances where anyone can put anyone else in the stocks for their public humiliation without any decision having been reached by any public body at all.

Really?

The first point I want to focus on is the allegation that the whole “pandemic thing” is fake.  “Of course the pandemic is fake” is the way Elliott puts the charge against her.  Some subset of an angry citizenry (gun owners) will decide when they have had “enough of the lies” in Vollmar’s case.

Is this possible?  My first instinct is to say that it is not possible.  I have no doubt that the statements that are being reported have actually been made, but could they have been made because they were instrumentally necessary rather than because they were truly believed.  I say what I need to say, in other words, but I don’t necessarily believe it.

In the world I live in, there is a lot of evidence for the reality of the pandemic.  I could read the news or watch TV.  I could go to the city health department.  I could go to the hospitals to verify that the beds are full of COVID patients. [2]  I could talk to my neighbors who are having first hand experience with hospitalization.  The people who are making these charges don’t live in that kind of world.

I’ve been told that there are mental disorders, paranoia, for instance, where the whole world seems untrustworthy and hostile.  There are treatments for paranoia but these treatments come one patient at a time.  What if the issue comes in cascades of angry and mutually reinforcing neighbors, all of whom share the same paranoid vision and all of whom justify the most vicious treatment of public officials?  What kind of treatment is there for that?

It is easy—facile, really—to blame President Trump for this, but he has never, so far as I have heard [3] said that there was no pandemic.  I have heard him say it will be light and transient; that it is an attack by China; that public gatherings are perfectly acceptable; and that it will soon be over in any case.  I think the President can be fairly charged with popularizing the “it’s all fake” culture, but that culture also preceded him and there are other reasons why people maintain that particular delusion.

I could say that these angry people have a goal in mind—harassing public officials, say—and are willing to say they believe anything that superficially justifies the things they want to do in any case.  There is, in fact, an online community somewhere that celebrated the ingenuity of the person who located Kelly Vollmar’s house by searching the tax records.  That person was duly celebrated by their peers.  There are lots of rewards for doing things like this over and above actually believing it to be true.

Still, I think they do believe it.  Presuppositions that you use for awhile because they are efficient tend to slide, eventually, into beliefs you consciously hold.  It’s just easier.

The second question these events raise in my mind is the actions that the beliefs justify.  If there are people who have been hired to direct a program aimed at “protecting the public” (that’s what their employers told them to do), what actions against them are justified?  How about a letter to the editor?  How about appearing at a public hearing sponsored by the Health Department where you could assemble in order to seek a redress of your grievances? How about a gathering outside the office where she works?  Peaceful, of course.

These are, by the standards of American politics, pretty aggressive, but they all treat the person as an officeholder.  These tactics, direct as they are, move deliberately past the roles of mother, wife, private citizen, member of the community, and member of a local church and attack the person as a person.

This person—take the case of Amber Elliott—is not any of those things for the present purpose.  She is a tyrant, intent on taking away our liberties and maximum pressure needs to be brought against her.  The only questions being asked here are tactical questions: what would cause the most pain?

This stripping away of all the roles could properly be called “dehumanization.”  Ms. Elliott is s tyrant RATHER THAN a mother, a wife, etc.  Everything about her is irrelevant; only this one part of her life is relevant.  She says that what she is doing has a vital public purpose, but we don’t care about the purpose—we care only about the means.  She says things like “flatten the curve;” we say things like “To hell with your mask mandate.”  You say things like, “The law requires…”  We say things like, “We will find you and punish you until you stop.”

It is common to strip away from intended victims all the aspects of their life that would allow members of your movement to have some identification with them or some sympathy.  Sometimes names like cockroaches” (Rwanda) or “rats” (Nazi Germany) are used.

So of the people who are harassing Ms. Elliott and Ms. Vallmar, we may say two things.  The first is that they believe in the legitimacy of the charges they are bringing.  They believe they are factually accurate (there is really no pandemic) and morally urgent (our rights are being taken away).

The second thing is that they are within their rights to act as vigilantes.  They have the right to persecute “tyrants” to “take away our freedoms.”  It might be seen as a duty.  It is certainly a praiseworthy action within their primary communities, which are probably mostly online.

What to do

I’m not really sure.  No one forces these people to assemble together and hatch conspiracy theories.  They do it because they want to.  There is no available force to oppose the vigilantes, particularly when so much of the harassment is conducted online.  This is not a police problem.  This is a little cells of fanatics problem.

The two formal solutions are to put these people in touch with the world of publicly confirmed facts, and to prevent them from acting, outside the law, on the delusions they hold in common.  Those two.  I don’t know how to do either of them.

[1]  See the article by Michelle Munz in the St. Louis Post Dispatch for October 30, 2020

[2]  I wouldn’t get any further than the information desk or the public relations department.  I might not get any further than the security officers.

[3]  I might have fallen a tweet or so behind.

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Lasting Damage to the Republic

I want to write this post as a rebuke to myself.  I want to look back on the day I wrote this and say, “This helped me avoid making a really bad mistake.”

Here is the mistake: “At last, the frightful Trump era is over and we can go back to normal.”

OK, that’s three or four mistakes, but the one I wanted to pay most attention to is that the Trump era inflicted grievous losses on the Republic and we may never fully recover at all.

This is a thought I have been getting ready to think for awhile.  Then, on November 11, Jonathan Gienapp offered this observation to Thomas Edsall:

Trump’s refusal to concede and his congressional allies’ refusal to object to what he is doing is indeed most dangerous. If it continues to be given oxygen, it’s hard not to think that there could belasting damage to the republic.

And this during a COVID 19 pandemic where a lot of people get sick and never fully recover.  There are long-term implications, in other words, and according to the CDC, these include:[1]

  • Cardiovascular: inflammation of the heart muscle
  • Respiratory: lung function abnormalities
  • Renal: acute kidney injury
  • Dermatologic: rash, hair loss
  • Neurological: smell and taste problems, sleep issues, difficulty with concentration, memory problems
  • Psychiatric: depression, anxiety, changes in mood

These, according to current thinking, result from losses of function in these systems.  We don’t “get over them” the way we get over a cold.  These are permanent liabilities for further loss of function and permanent reductions in the quality of the life lived.

When I say that I have been getting ready to think this thought, it is the confluence of these two ideas I have in mind.  What if the Trump era has caused permanent loss of function?

Somewhere, in some classroom, I picked up the acronym PERSIA [2] to refer to a set of categories that are useful in looking at how societies function.  It is a list very much like cardiovascular, respiratory, renal, dermatologic, neurological, and psychiatric.

There is no natural place to begin because when things go wrong, every deviation  from sustainable practices reinforces every other deviation.  I, myself, am inclined to begin with the economic effects, because the social effects seem to be taking an undeserved priority.

So let’s start with the economy.  The continued maldistribution of the income and wealth produced by our economy has changed the time horizon of many Americans.  In the traditional immigrant experience, for example, the parents suffered great economic hardship in order to provide the foundation for the success of their children. [3] That is a time horizon.  But what if it doesn’t work for the children?  Or for the grandchildren?  What if a permanent underclass forms, from which there is no realistic hope of escape for most members of that class?  That is also a time horizon.

There are real rewards, now, for making do with poverty (I am defining that as living paycheck to paycheck in an economy where jobs simply disappear) as a condition.  You don’t aspire to what you used to call “success” anymore for yourself or for your children.  You raise your children to succeed in the conditions of your life because their lives will be like yours.  Giving up on “success” for your children allows you to deny or revile the people your children will never become.  They will never become, professionals, administrators, cultural elites.  So you are free to unleash the venom against those people and their culture which you have been withholding because your children might join them—eventually.

These are not conditions that make the present culture war inevitable.  Economic deprivation and stagnation are bad, but they don’t cause alienation at the current levels.  What the economic failures do is make the question of cultural status always relevant.  It is always on the table.  It is always an irritant.  A lot of what we call “cultural problems” would go away if economic despair could be dealt with.

That’s why I want to start with economics.  A more just distribution of our wealth wouldn’t solve the conditions that wind up on the front pages of newspapers and blog sites all over the country, but they would allow other things to become more relevant.

It is easy to stoke permanent distrust among people who feel they have been denied a fair chance.  It is even easier when networks of social media make the display of this distrust rewarding.  It has become a team sport.  But what happens of “our permanent disenfranchisement” begins to show signs of weakening?  What if there are more important things to talk about?  Will we be willing to let go of knee-jerk animosity just to live better?

This is a simple point, really.  The divisive cultural answers—the QAnon-style answers—are answers to questions that are kept permanently relevant by the system’s economic failures.  We move right away to attacking the answers because they are so abhorrent, but this argument—the COVID 19 analogy—is that they are symptoms.  We become permanently more vulnerable to social dysfunctions because of the economy and there is no hope of addressing it without addressing the economy.

The cultural alienation is hateful, but the economic deprivation is fundamental.  Robert Reich says there is an old Russian story about a peasant whose neighbor is finally able to afford a cow, something the peasant could never afford. He prays to God is great distress and God promises to grant this peasant one wish.  The peasant’s wish?  “I want my neighbor’s cow to die.”


This is a malevolent social hatred, but once upon a time, it was economic.  We can urge the peasant to be nicer to his neighbor, but when his economic deprivation in the midst of plenty is always on the table, no other answer can be expected in the long run.

These economic and social interactions will provoke political reactions in a nation that relies on voting.  The Trump Era, and the Tea Party movement before it attest to that.

Let’s consider the long-term intellectual effects before time runs out.  The COVID 19model I am using as a principal analogy suggests that even in people who have “recovered,” there will be lingering vulnerabilities.  Trump’s revulsion against news sources—the origin of “fake news”—has grown into a denial of facts as a category of argument.  It is a denial of facticity itself. [4]

How do we get that back?  Are we going to be permanently lamed, now, in our public discourse where nothing is more or less true than anything else?  If persuasion is really impossible. is power the only force left to enable an orderly society?  There must be—soon—a rejection of mere assertion as an adequate ground for public debate.  Assertions unrelated to what is demonstrably true need to be rejected.  If they can be called an artifact of an earlier illness (Trumpism) that might make it easier.  But real trust cannot begin to grow back before this debasement of public discourse has been healed.   Then maybe.

Let me close with Jonathan Gienapp’s point: “there could belasting damage to the republic.”  I think he is right.  There is a great tendency for people like me who have tried to hold their breath during the whole Trump presidency, to feel that finally “it is over” and we can breath again.

I know that is wrong.  We will be feeling the effects of this for generations to come, even if the crisis passes and we are formally “out of danger”  The permanent loss of function I am pointing to means that “it” will never be over and that we need to learn a new way to be a democracy and to affirm neighbors who are not like ourselves.

[1]  If this list had been put together by a congressional committee, it would certainly spell something.

[2] Political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, and aesthetic.  I routinely skip over the aesthetic category because I really don’t know anything about it.

[3  Joan C. Williams, in her book,Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.  gives a powerful case for this effect.

[4]  Trump’s use of “fake news” in his 2015-16 stump speech wasn’t that bad.  “It’s fake news,” he said, “They don’t have any sources.”  I am no fan of unsupported claims myself.

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To take arms against a sea of troubles…

As the Prince of Denmark considers his options, “taking arms against a sea of  troubles” is the one he considers first.  Presumably that “taking arms” would be preceded by some notion of just what comprised that “sea” and the troubles it produces for him.  I know just what he means.

Persons and Categories

You can try not to be angry.  My experience is that it doesn’t work very well.  Individuals have other resources, of course, but categories of people don’t.  “White men without a college education,” for instance, comprise a category of Americans who regularly show up in studies of every kind as angrier than the rest of us.  “Categories,” I am proposing, do not have the resources for managing anger that persons have.

On the other hand, persons don’t have the options we often think we have.  We think we can “not be angry,” but we can’t.  We can (try to) not show our anger.  That works over short periods of time and it works better if we have honed that skill.  We can try to change the conditions that we are angry about. We can confront people who have made us angry and try to resolve the issue.  We can deny the conditions that made us angry or simply try to stay away from the people or the circumstances that have made us angry.

All those things work sometimes for persons.  None of them work for categories of angry people.  And this is amazingly applicable to us in this moment in time.  Here’s something to think about.

David Byler, a data analyst, believes, according to Thomas Edsall’s election day column in the New York Times:

In his view, the center-left and center-right coalitions represent a structural aspect of contemporary democratic political competition and that they are likely, over time, to alternate control of the government…

On the other hand, in Isabel V. Sawhill’s view:

Should Trump win, it would be a signal that our cultural divisions have gone past the point of no return, that demographic and cultural change has come too fast for many people to handle, that a backlash has reached hurricane proportions.

Consider for a moment, the difference between a regular alternation between a center-right and a center-left coalition; and the “backlash has reached hurricane proportions.”  They can’t both be right.

In this context—the anger of categories of people rather the anger of a person—let’s consider our political options.  My argument has been, from the early emergence of Donald Trump in his political incarnation, that he is an effect, not a cause. [1]  We have allowed “Trump-favorable” conditions to flourish and when they have produced democratic anomalies, like Trump himself, we have allowed ourselves to be surprised.  

When circumstances that will cause [2] me to “be angry,” then I have a range of choices for dealing with that; I listed them above.  If these circumstances are affecting a whole category of people, we tend first to condemn the behavior.  We never get as far as considering the causes of the behavior.  Considering the behavior is widely thought of as justifying the behavior.  That’s not where I am going at all.

So we take this view.  “Yes, I realize that the circumstances you face are outrageous, but we would like, nevertheless, for you to refuse to be outraged.  And particularly, we would like you not to express your rage.”  “The demographic and cultural changes,” Sawhill says,” have come too fast.”  I would add economic change; in fact I would feature economic change.

What are we really asking for?

The circumstances of your life are outrageous, we say, and what needs to be done is we need for you to control your rage.  We want you not to act out your rage, to justify your rage, or to support political actors who say in public what you cannot say.  About the circumstances, we say, “Well, that’s just how things go sometimes.”

Let’s consider the phenomenon called “blaming the victim.”  Liberals have been fond of that device for forty years that I know about, and that is just the time since William Ryan’s book of the name was published. [3]  But consider it in the present context.  The core of President Trump’s coalition is made up of non-college educated white men.  They are people who have seen all avenues for economic advancement blocked off, not only for themselves, but for their children.  Some have seen recent immigrants competing very successfully for their jobs.  They have seen the old certainties—values they held to more vigorously than they embodied them, perhaps—stripped away: gender norms, religious norms, speech norms.  They have been found guilty of embodying virtues their parents were proud of; guilty of engaging in behavior that was once widely tolerated. [Note that here, as always when race is an element, the blamed is black and the blamer, white.  This eliminates any sense that the whites are also victims.]

It is things like this that are the soil that produce a weed like President Trump.  It is things like this that have “made them angry.”  (You see now why I introduced that language so early; now is when I need it.)  Being angry, they do and say angry things.  The accuracy of the things they say is not their chief virtue; rather, it is how well it expresses the pent up anger.

Now it gets complicated.  In their anger, they say things against more vulnerable populations and sometimes act out their anger toward those populations.  They unquestionably support political actors who demean, defame, and destroy vulnerable populations.  These people who are the targets of these attacks are victims.  They are the victims of people the system is victimizing.  They are the victims of the victims.

It is nearly impossible for me not to condemn the working class white men who embody so many things that I oppose.  Seeing so much of such behavior puts me in a difficult spot.  I don’t want to condone it; I don’t want to be complicit in it.  Everything I can think of to say by way of criticism would be routinely disregarded because it came from someone like me.  For all I know, some things are said just to gall people like me.

And if that is true—if so many of the things that are said and done are attempts to get under my skin—then I am in a difficult place.  Taking arms against a sea of troubles is not going to help me if I am being baited into taking arms against a sea of troubles.  If the problem to be addressed is that our political-economic system victimizes white men, then I could stand up for the victims.  If the problem is that angry white men victimize other, more vulnerable populations, then I could stand up for that second set of victims—the victims of the victims.  

If standing up for either set of victims changes the subject away from what is wrong—what conditions are causing all the victimization—and shifts it over to my status as a critic of the first group of victims, then the war goes on and peace recedes from every attempts.  If refusing to be baited into futile class-based criticism looks good, I need to be aware that I am condoning not only the original conditions, but also the actions taken by the victims of those conditions.

Now what?

[1]  He has become a cause during his presidency.  He has organized and justified the grievances of the most aggrieved blocs and given permission for anti-elite violence.  Still, the cause part is small by comparison.

[2]  I know many people don’t like the language of “X made me angry” but it isn’t untrue and it is the sliver of the truth that I want to emphasize here.

[3]  I was teaching political science at Westminster College in Pennsylvania at the time and I used to assign the book because it ran directly against the attitudes many of my students brought with them into class.  I am writing this post for the same reason, but for a different clientele: fellow liberals, this time.

 

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And Remember to Breathe

I am writing this on the morning after the election.  You might think that a blogger like me would want to talk about politics this morning.  Not really.  I want to write about adjusting the balance between my life, taken as a whole, and how my life seems when I allow it to be squeezed down into one small part of that life. Even politics.

There are some people who are able to focus very intently on one reality.  This is a “reality” that can be lived in to the exclusion of the rest of your life.  I am one of those people.  

Recently, I have been focusing on politics.  

Very likely, you think that the problematic word in that sentence is “politics.”  Not really.  It is “focusing.”  Imagine that this tendency to focus so sharply that awareness of other realities goes away.  It would be like living in one room of your house.  It isn’t that the other rooms are not there; it is only that you don’t care about them while you are focused on the one room.

I wrote that so it would sound silly.  It isn’t really silly, but it is a mistake.  What I need to do is to remember the other rooms and then care about the other rooms and then make a decision to live in the other rooms as well as this one.  It seems obvious if we are thinking about rooms.  Let’s think about passions. [1]

I am madly in love with…oh….Darlene.  Nothing matters except my courtship of her and the possibility that she will accept me.  I put the proposition to her directly and she says no.  Maybe she even says, “Surely you are joking!”  My courtship of Darlene is the room, the one room, I have been living it.  I will very likely collapse in that room and feel sorry for myself for awhile and experience my failure and I humiliation.

But at some point, I realize that before Darlene, I was looking for a woman I could like and respect who also liked and respected me. [2]  So, after I am done feeling bad, I resume looking for a woman like that.  Darlene is now an episode; a dark episode, certainly, but one among many.  She is one room of my house and when I remember that, I can live differently.

What I need to do is to remember the other rooms and then care about the other rooms and then make a decision to live in the other rooms as well as this one. [3]  

Note the sequence: remember, care about, decide.  That’s the sequence for me.  Maybe you put them in a different order.

It may seem odd, but I have, on occasion been completely focused on whether my beloved Oregon Ducks—mostly football, but sometimes basketball—are winning.  It has become, for the duration of that time, either what I am doing or some part of my personal weather.  A dark cloud that follows me around, like Joe Btfsplk in Li’l Abner.  It is a very constrained and uncomfortable existence and it feels completely inevitable when I am in it..

What I need to do is to remember the other rooms and then care about the other rooms and then make a decision to live in the other rooms as well as this one. [4]  

For the last week, I have been engaged in national politics or have been hiding from national politics.  Last night, election night, I alternated between hiding from the tracking of the election results and attending to them.  For purposes of this essay, those are the same thing.  It takes a lot of effort to watch the election returns and also a lot of effort to pretend to be doing something else.  Both are living in that same room; both are caring only about how Darlene feels about me or whether the Ducks are playing up to their potential.  Neither is genuinely caring about something else.

When I genuinely care about something else, politics becomes just another part of my life.  It is what it is, but it is only one of the things I care about; only one of the things I am acting on.  I am still, in all these other parts of my life, an “agent;” I am someone who is making plans and acting on his own account. [5]  

The specific things I care about are unique to me, of course, just as the mix of things you care about are unique to you, but there are some common elements too.  Take my body, for instance.  When I am entirely focused on how ballots are being counted in Wisconsin, I am not conscious of breathing.  I am not conscious of the sense of sitting on something or of the pressure of the floor on my soles when I walk around.  For as much good as it is doing me, I might as well refer to my body as “it” and say that it continues to do all those things while “I” exhaust myself with politics.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  I can withdraw myself from politics and invest myself in the sensations of my body.

What I need to do is to remember the other rooms and then care about the other rooms and then make a decision to live in the other rooms as well as this one. 

I need to remember that “it” is there and that I can pay a great deal of attention to the experiences “it” is having.  When I do that, they become the experiences “I” am having.  A really good deep breath can be a wonderful thing when it has been awhile since you have had one and taking that breath intentionally can be a wonderful thing if you have been passive before all those passions for a long time.

I am going to schedule myself fairly tightly today.  It isn’t that I have so much to do as that I need the help of the schedule to remind me how many rooms I really do live in most of the time.  That’s one of the nice things about obligations—you are tied to them. [6]  You might say, probably not out loud, “I’d really like to go on sulking in the one room of my house where I am living, but I promised Aunt Lois that I would do her shopping for her and pick up a book at the library for Uncle Harold.”

There’s no magic there.  It is just that having obligations helps remind you that other things are important too and that the life you live is diverse and that one part of it—currently the political part—is filled with tension and disappointment.

[1]  I have had a different attitude toward the word “passion” since I learned that it shares a root (the Latin pati, “to suffer,” with passive.  Passions, as seen through this lens, are things that happen to you.  They are active; you are passive.

[2]  “Liking” might seem pallid, but I think of it as something that grows, given the proper conditions and the proper nutrition.

[3]  It is just a little awkward to quote yourself from the distance of just a few paragraphs away, but I am hoping the will become a theme.

[4]  See how nicely that works?

[5]  Just in case the language of agent/agency is unfamiliar, acting for the benefit of others is included in “acting on my own account.”

[6]  The very helpful etymology is from the Latin ligare, “to bind.”  You can think of “being bound” as a negative thing, of course, but in the present context, we are talking about being bound to this or that or—more exactly—bound to one thing or to many things.

 

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Discontented Thoughts

Here is a passage I found in Middlemarch this week.  There is not the slightest indication that the author, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) or the character who thought them, intended these remarks to be taken in a political way, but for me, this is the week before the most fraught election of my life and it sounds political to my ears

For me, just for this year, I find myself wishing that election day were further from Halloween and closer to Thanksgiving.

We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves, and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement,

I’d like to examine this passage as a literary product first.  I think that is how it stuck me when I read it.  I had to go back and look at it again to find out what it actually said.

First, I liked “look…and see.”  We look passively and we see our figures [passive verb] being acted upon.

Second, once I got to looking at the actions, I liked the adjective + noun patterns.  Notice “dull consent” followed by “insipid misdoing” followed by “shabby achievement.”

Third, consider the tone of the adjectives.  It isn’t just, I think, that these are not words in common speech today; I think that they may be extraordinarily precise words.  Consider “dull” in “dull consent.”  There are lots of other words available to suggest that the consent is less that full and active.  You could say it was “grudging,” for example.  That is probably what I would have said.  Or “thin,” setting up “thick” or “full” as a better grade of consent.  I think “dull” is better than any of those.  For one thing, “dull” is the kind of thing you can feel.  You would’t want to say that you had given “sharp” consent, but you know that when you are sharp, you would not give dull consent.

The Latin adjective is sapidus, “tasteless.” [1]  If we may consider misdoings to be sins, it gives us “tasteless sins.”  In the modern imagination “sins” are daring violations of God’s “law” or even of society’s laws.  We imagine “sinners” to be bold adventurers, daring the consequences.  But a sin that didn’t even have an interesting flavor…that wouldn’t be much of a sin.  It is, plausibly, the kind of sin into which one might be led by dull consent. [2]

Before we get to the third one, achievement, note the pattern of the last two: we have misdeeds first, then achievements.  “Wrong-doings” and “right-doings;” neither of which meaning much of anything to us.  With that quality of consent, neither deeds nor misdeeds provide a significant experience.

So, finally, we have “shabby achievement.”  I like it that it was a failed attempt at an achievement.  This is an actual achievement, but it is shabby.  “Shabby” is a tone word.  Behavior that is not “wrong” exactly, can still be shabby.  One person can treat another shabbily.  Shabby behavior is overused and under-maintained.  It is not polished and fit for the task at hand.  It is functional, but ragged.

This indictment is not a powerful charge against any human or any kind of human.  It is really more of a reflection; something one might mull over about oneself.  That is why I especially like “experience words” like dull, insipid, and shabby.  They are words that anyone with a good vocabulary might use in thinking about their own life and their behavior.

It is an altogether exalting passage.  I am glad that something stopped me and made me go back and celebrate it.

[1}  Ironically, the verb form, sapere, is also the source of sapient, and carries the root meaning “to be wise.”  It is why we are called homo sapiens, although it must be said that we gave that name to ourselves.

[2]  There is a recent Polish film, Ida, in which Ida wants to be accepted as a nun, but due to some events, she is required to leave the convent for awhile, comes into a bunch of money for awhile, and commits in rapid order all the sins she has heard of.  She moves down her imaginary list, checking each one off.  All these “sins” baffle her.  She has given them her dull consent and they don’t really taste like anything to her.

 

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Thoughtless Lying

I come from a small town in a conservative part of Ohio.  In some ways, that has been a very good preparation for the kind of life I have lived.  In our town, we believed in “the virtues,” despite violating them as often as everyone else.  It has taken me quite a little while to get far enough away from my upbringing that to see that it was a good thing to teach the value of these virtues.  It was good even apart from our success in achieving them.

President Trump has brought that to my mind recently.  A part of my upbringing was what used to be considered a natural consequence.  When you lied a lot, people stopped believing you.  That seemed to me at the time to be a very appropriate response and it still seems that way to me.

I am not really sure why it doesn’t work for President Trump.  I remember that during World War II, there was a relaxation about “truth” that was attributed to the war.  If our leaders said things that were not true, surely they were compelled to do so by the contingencies of conflict.  And that didn’t stop all at once.  When a U-2 pilot was shot down, President Eisenhower went on the air to say that we had no such craft and no such pilots.  We did, of course.  My father, who was a big fan of Eisenhower’s, passed it off as “a cover statement.”

I don’t have a criticism to make of “cover statements.”  You really can’t expect our leaders to be candid and transparent about our spy operations.  Still, I wonder if that Eisenhower experience might not have introduced a little buffer between hearing what the President said and coming to some judgment about what was true.

Significance

We have, of course, come a long way from there.  We have come so far that I want to think today not about individual officeholders telling individual lies, but about the culture that makes lying insignificant.  Telling a lie, in other words, no longer signifies anything about the person; not about his upbringing or his ethnicity or his character. [1]

It is an acceptable style of speech by which one person identifies themself [2] as a member of the team.  I am not entirely sure what the mechanism for this is.  Is it an art form like a punch at exactly the right place or is it just the butchery of beating with a baseball bat?  Is there extra merit in telling outrageous lies?  This would be like a “tall tales” contest where the truth of the tale is no part of the competition, but only the extravagance?

So, for instance, saying that there is a child pornography ring operating in the basement of a building would be OK.  It would be a contestant in a contest like this.  But saying that there was a child pornography ring operating in the basement of a building that did not have a basement, would be much much better.

Try to imagine rebutting a “tall tale.”  You see how it doesn’t work.  The supposed refutation isn’t on the same track as the tale; there is no way to bring them into contact with each other.

Or possibly it is not the extravagance of the lie but the effect on the person at whom the lie is being thrown.  If they just stand there and say it is not true, it wasn’t that much of a lie; it was a low scoring lie.  If it arouses them to inarticulate anger, especially at a televised event, it is much better.  If they break down in tears, it is much much better.

Remember that we were considering significance.  What does a truly destructive lie signify.  It no longer signifies that the liar’s word cannot be trusted.  That is a question that cannot be asked.  It signifies, instead, that this liar is especially good, since lies are only words and words are only weapons.

Truth as a Victim

The examples I have given so far imagine that they include things like personal attacks and group slanders.  But what if there is no person or group to receive the lie?  What if the lie is clearly no part of a “tall tale” contest, but is represented as true.  This is “true” in the sense that empirical and logical statements exist that could confirm its truth to a panel of impartial judges.

Take for instance, the claim that a certain number of persons attended an inaugural ceremony.  There are lots of ways to estimate the number of people in a large crowd.  Any one of them could, in principle, be brought in evidence against a claim that there were many more than that.  This is not a claim like saying that people who attended enjoyed this inauguration more than the attendees enjoyed other inaugurations.  Who knows?  Who checked?  We expect to know things like the number of attendees; we do not expect to know the relative enjoyment of different crowds at different events.

But what’s the harm, you might ask?  The statement of verifiable facts engages the supposition that these statements really can be true or false.  You come to a meeting in an unfamiliar part of town and wonder where to park.  I tell you that you can park on the street because all the meters have been turned off.  After the meeting, you find a traffic ticket on your car.  It almost seems odd to say it out loud, but really, if you assume I did that to you as a prank or as an act of political sabotage, those are the good scenarios.  If you think I did that to harm you, you also believe that the meters are actually turned off and on and that I knew which they would be and misrepresented them.

The Bad Scenario

How could that possibly be the good scenario?  Well, think about it.  It presupposes that the meters are on or off; that one can know whether they are on or off; that they are on or off apart from whether I wish them to be on or off.  They presume, in other words, an orderly world in which things can be true and can be known to be true.  How is that not a good scenario?

On the other hand, telling lies—these are misrepresentations of facts acceptable to an impartial jury—because they make the assumption of meaningful speech impossible is a much worse offense.  These are not self-serving lies, as when I make hold up a payment to an ally until they comply with my wishes and then say I have done no such thing.  That’s a motivated lie and while it is bad, it is not as bad as telling lies that benefit no one.  But if I say that there are only half as many national parks as there are in fact or that that average daily temperatures have been trending down over the last decade or that there is no evidence to support evolution or that the need for supplemental nutrition is going down as a result of the COVID crisis—these are casual lies.  They are lies with no purpose and no probable effect other than weakening the belief that statements can be expected to mean something.  They can be true or false; they can be significant or insignificant.

You see now why the parking meter lies were the good scenario.  Hordes of casual, unmotivated lies simply flood the field.  They make correction impossible by their very numbers.  They make it not really worth our while to  continue to assume that claims about the world can mean something; that, on the other hand, saying what you feel like saying at the moment is enough to secure your approval and your support.

I don’t think that is where we are, but we need to start acting now if we are not going to go there.  We can start by electing Joe Biden, who misspeaks quite a bit for public person, but who knows the value of truth in public discourse.

[1]  You might have though that series was a little odd, with “ethnicity” stuck in there, but I added it so that I would have a chance to say that where I grew up, a common compliment that one man might pay to another was, “That’s mighty white of you.”  I had no idea what that meant.  I was no more likely to identify that as a racial remark than I was to identify, “Who’s the fairest of them all?” as a racial question.

[2] It hurts.  I’m trying to learn to live with it.

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Bo Knows Politics?

There comes a time when, as the logic of a movement plays out, it just goes too far.  In this essay I want to say that I have reached that point myself, so far as the self-righteous political left is concerned. [1]  I’ve been following along.  I have said Yes.  Then I said…O.K.  Then I said, Really?  Now I am at the place where I want to say No,

I want to provide an illustration shortly.  This represents the bridge too far.  It’s not that it is SO bad; it is, rather, that it came at the time when I really couldn’t take one more.  And it is bad.

But I want to begin with one of my favorite commercials.  You can look at it yourself by looking up “Bo Knows” on You Tube.  The “Bo” is Bo Jackson; It’s a Nike ad.  But well-known athletes appear in very brief cameos to say, “Bo knows ______” [whatever their sport is.]  I remember John McEnroe saying “Bo knows tennis?” and Michael Jackson saying “Bo knows basketball.”  As I remember the sequence, the affirmations get weaker until Wayne Gretsky shows up.  He is supposed to say, “Bo knows hockey.”  He doesn’t say that.  There is a little pause, while we digest the idea that Gretsky is struggling with what he is supposed to say, then he looks at the camera and says, “No.”

“Bo knows hockey” is one station too far for Gretsky.  I cite that well-known ad because it carries the flavor of where my political life is at the moment.  The camera turns to me and I know, as Gretsky did, what I am supposed to say and in that moment, I am not willing to say it.  So finally, I am saying No.

Liberals have gotten weird.  They are still on the train that I have gotten off of.  I’m still as liberal as I was, which I always thought of as an achievement for a small town southern Ohio boy who went to an evangelical college.  I suppose there are other liberals who, like me, are still liberal and wonder where their comrades think that train is going.

I could spent some time on what I mean by “liberal,” but I mean roughly what Joe Biden and Kamala Harris mean by it, so that wouldn’t add much.  Let me move, instead, to the petition that moved me to my Wayne Gretsky moment.  Here is the petition, at least all the parts of it that deal directly with Trader Joe’s.

This is the work of a young woman named Briones Bedell, if you would like to find it on line.

We demand that Trader Joe’s remove racist branding and packaging from its stores. The grocery chain labels some of its ethnic foods with modifications of “Joe” that belies a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes. For example, “Trader Ming’s” is used to brand the chain’s Chinese food, “Arabian Joe” brands Middle Eastern foods, “Trader José” brands Mexican foods, “Trader Giotto’s” is for Italian food, and “Trader Joe San” brands their Japanese cuisine. 

The Trader Joe’s branding is racist because it exoticizes other cultures – it presents “Joe” as the default “normal” and the other characters falling outside of it – they are “Arabian Joe,” “Trader José,” and “Trader Joe San.”

The common thread between all of these [the other examples included Disney’s Jungle Cruise and the book White Shadows in the South Seas] transgressions is the perpetuation of exoticism, the goal of which is not to appreciate other cultures, but to further other and distance them from the perceived “normal.” The current branding, given this essential context, then becomes even more trivializing and demeaning than before. What at first seems, at worst, insensitive, further is called into question. 

 

I think I would like to begin with “exoticize.”  The -ize ending is used to say that one thing has been made into another.  You can’t homogenize homogenized milk, for example, because that has already happened.  In Ms. Bedell’s use of “exoticize” she suggests that something was not exotic and that it has been made exotic.  My question is, “Where was it not exotic before?”

Where I grew up big cities and high mountains and endless plains were exotic.  They aren’t exotic to the people who live there.  Groups of Hasidic Jews are exotic to me and large Amish communities and the Los Vegas culture of risking and losing.  But they are the normal habitat of the people who live there.  They are not exotic to the locals.  They are exotic to me because I am not local.

I don’t “exoticize” these places.  They seem exotic to me and it might very well be that my kind of life would seem exotic to them.  Consider, for instance, reporter Sue Charlton’s response to Australia and Mick Dundee’s response to New York City in Crocodile Dundee.  Each of those settings is exotic to the other.  

Ms. Bedell’s use of exotic sets up her criticism of “normal.”  “Joe” is presented as normal in the context of Trader Joe’s, she says.  And it is.  All those other names are adaptations to—puns on, really—other language traditions.  They are not pejorative; they are playful.  My early years were spent in the verbal environment of World War II where other nationalities were routinely disparaged.  This isn’t that.  Ms. Bedell seem to believe that if a norm is not universal, it is somehow perverse.  There are local norms, Ms. Bedell.  If things are not “normal,” it doesn’t mean that they are ab-normal.

And, finally, she moves directly from exotic—“exoticizing, really—to racist.  I have a whole attic full of difficulties with the word “racist” but this breaks new ground.  If you call something unusual because it is not usual where you live, that is the same as calling it exotic, which is clearly a racist thing to say.

It isn’t that Ms. Bedell’s petition is SO bad.  It’s bad, but it really just takes the kinds of arguments a lot of liberals are making and extends it too far.  It is the reductio ad absurdum presented as a sober logical conclusion.  And for me, it was just too much.  I reached my Wayne Gretsky moment and I had to say, NO.

And it wasn’t that saying No was such a big deal.  It was the sense of relaxation that accompanied it.  That relaxation told me that I had been working a lot harder than I had realized to hold on to liberal excesses.  I had exerted myself to hold together the excesses of sexism and racism and sizeism and ageism and a lot of other -isms. [2]  I apparently accepted, being a good liberal, the weight of one excess after another without sensing what the cost was.  But when I said No to the exoticism = racism charge against Trader Joe’s, I felt a lot of weight fall off and it made me wonder why I had been carrying it all this time.

That’s why I called this post “Bo Knows Politics.”  That series runs, with increasing puzzlement, up to Wayne Gretsky.  The ad continues, but I stop at Gretsky.  I don’t want to call what those guys are doing, “liberalism.”  I want to call why I am doing as “liberalism.”  

I want to call what they are doing, “wretched excess.”

[1]  You can tell that, of course, when I categorize a group by their motives rather than by the nobility of their cause.

[2]  If I were feeling playful about it—I’m not—I would say that we had been enduring a wave of ism-ism.  Maybe one day.

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And forgive us our maladjustments

I had a friend once who had learned to apologize for his lateness and to minimize his error at the same time.  I was fascinated.  I had no idea you could do that.  He would say, “Hi guys.  I’m so sorry that I am just a little bit late.”  The “so sorry” part recognized the error and apologized for it; the “just a little bit late” part minimized the error and made the apology seem unnecessary.

I was reminded of that recently when I heard an invitation to a period of common confession at church.  The need to confess our sins before God is fundamental to Presbyterians and the sins we confess are horrible without mitigation.  That is the whole point that is made when we emphasize God’s grace in refusing to hold these horrible sins against us and blotting them out completely.

The “sins” we commit against each other are mere peccadillos by comparison.  We sin against each other as we sin against God—in thought word, and deed—but we are sinning against people who have also sinned against us.  This calls for a kind of “adjustment” which may have, as Paul’s admonitions often did, the unity of the congregation in mind.  That is why he implored the sophisticates of the church in Corinth not to casually dismiss the most conscientious among them and why he implored the conscientious not to condemn the sophisticates.  These are matters for forgiveness, certainly, but mutual forgiveness. [Nothing here, you notice, calls our attention to whether the arrow has gone “far enough,” which is the presupposition of “fallen short.”]

That’s not how it is with God.  God is holy and our sins are glaring violations of the relationship He offers, enables, and demands.  Here, for instance, in one we have used from time to time in our church.

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

Our sins, in this confession, are “heavy, real, and deep.”  They have become for us “a consuming fire of judgment.”  And we cannot change what we have done; we can only hope to “be changed” by God’s intervention in our lives.  There is no softening our our faults here; not a hint of what I called, in the title, “maladjustment.”

Forgiveness as therapy

There is a slow drift, it seems to me, away from the notion that sins are really bad and that we are really guilty because we keep committing them.  A friend who is a therapist once told me that it is a good practice in counseling the assume that the client is doing as well as he or she can.  That gives you a chance to focus on how the client can look at the problem in a different way, how to learn new skills, and how to create some non-judgmental space for learning those skills.  That sounds really good to me.  It is therapy, however.  It is not how the Christian faith has been understood.

Therapy does not provide us with a model for faith.  There is no God against whom we have offended.  There is no God to whom we can confess and to whom we can appeal for forgiveness.  And the closer we come to adopting the understandings that work perfectly well in therapy, the worse will be our understanding of what faith in God entails.

All this was brought on by a “call” to “confession” I heard recently.

“We confess ways in which we have not yet quite made the mark.”

Three things concern me here.  One is mere pedantry, so I’ll deal with that first.  As I understand it, “falling short of the mark,” the traditional way of phrasing it,  is a term from ancient archery.  A line is drawn and all the archers are to shoot their arrows beyond it if they can.  If you can’t shoot it that far, your arrow falls short of the mark.  Literally.  It’s more like the modern competition in javelin.  You don’t really “make” marks in archery.

In the context of the prayer of confession, the mark is the life to which God calls us.  It is a life with respect to Him and with respect to each other.  The line is at a challenging distance and we fall short.  In the expression above, we have the picture of “making the mark.”  That may be a version of an accomplishment, as in “she made her mark in popular music.”  Or maybe it is just a rephrasing of “not falling short;” we “made” the mark that is set for us.  Neither calls the familiar “falling short of the mark” to mind. 

The second matter is not mere pedantry..  This formulation has us “not quite” making the mark.  The emphasis there is not on missing it, but on how close we came.  That is what “not quite” contributes to this formulation.  It is not the language of confession.  It is apologizing profusely for “being just a little bit late.”  In confession, the emphasis is on our failure.  This language doesn’t do that.

The third matter is also serious.  It is that we have “not yet…made the mark.”  That achievement is, by this phrasing, just a matter of time.  We are coming closer and closer.  We have not achieved the goal, but we are about to.  That is what “yet” contributes to this picture.  But the Christian view is not that we are coming closer and closer and that God, if He were willing to wait.  It is, rather, that we are fundamentally flawed and that the guilt of our lives will be dealt with by God’s unmerited mercy or not at all.  “Not yet” doesn’t say that.

If this was a public misstatement, no more than a slip of the tongue, it really doesn’t matter.  I know what it is like to have a microphone stuck in your face and later on, you can scarcely imagine that you could have said such a thing.  If this was one of those, I have spent way too much time on it already.

But I don’t think it was.  To me, this is part of a much larger pattern—the slow drift of real religion into therapy is a real thing.  It is actually occurring.  Studies that take no position on this change show it to be occurring and I can see why it is attractive.  We, after all, control the outcomes in therapy.  

We don’t control the life of faith.  In our service of God, we can see a future in which we may “be changed,” as it says in the confession above.  That’s a passive verb.  We are not doing the changing; it is us who are being changed.  The Agent of this change is elsewhere and we receive the action and respond to it as we are able.

I like therapy.  I have benefitted greatly from my experience of it.  But I don’t want it instead of worship.

 

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A Skeptic has a Mystical Experience. Who would have thought it?

A few weeks ago, I had a mystical experience.  I mention it because I am not at all sure what a mystical experience is and because I am not somebody who has mystical experiences.  Still…this time I did.

So what’s a mystical experience?  Some people talk easily about experiences that are “inexplicable,” but all kinds of things have been explained satisfactorily that were once “inexplicable,” so I would rather say that, for me, a mystical experience is unexplained.

I have a very low bar for unexplained events, so you would think I would have a lot of
them.  The picture I use of my own conscious experience is a small campfire in a large dark forest.  The campfire casts a little zone of light and beyond that, everything is shadowy, and then pitch black.  Some of that darkness is inside me and some outside.  The common element is that I have no conscious access to it.

That’s a lot of darkness and just a little light.  When I say that something has come to me, a realization, let’s say, from “out there,” it’s not a big deal.  Most of the things I once knew are out there and a lot of things I spend energy on not knowing or not remembering.  They are all out there, too.  I don’t call those mystical. They are just “out there.”

But this experience was not like that.  This was an intimate and powerful  feeling and it came with a very persuasive visualization of the event.  I was asleep—kind of—and I immediately felt that something had happened and that it was a really good thing.  I saw a man dressed in a long coat or maybe a robe walking away from me into the fog.  The fog is the reason I don’t know if it was a trench coat or a robe.

He had been close to me, apparently.  Maybe even as close as conversational distance, but by the time I saw him, he was maybe 30 feet away and walking slowly into the fog.  I knew at once what “it” was.

This is an odd time to begin saying “it,” isn’t it?  I have been saying “he.”  But I change now to “it” because although the figure was the figure of a man, I knew that it was the embodiment of a grievance I have held for a long time.  “It,” the grievance, was walking “away,: walking out of my life.  I hoped ardently that he/it was gone for good.  It was a real relief to think that that particular grievance might be gone for good.

I don’t want to deal with the particularities of the grievance—at this distance from the events, it doesn’t matter much anyway—but I do want to say that I have been alternately treasuring and fighting this grievance.  Do you know what that is like?  I’m guessing it is a common experience, but I don’t really know.  An unfair and hurtful action was taken against me.  I resented it, of course.  It was hurtful; it was nightmarish.  Being angry about it felt a lot better than cowering under it.

After a while, it became clear that I was the only one still suffering from it and it was time to let it go.  And I tried for a while to let it go.  But I also kept on feeling angry about it.  I think that is why it hung around my life for so long.  I would try to let it go for a while, then I would burst out in righteous anger against it for awhile.  I thought I would be really proud to have mastered it and just let it go.  But I also thought I would be accepting and consenting to some really bad behavior by letting it go and I didn’t want to do that.

So I wanted sometimes to treat it like a crime and make my case in court and have it validated and the perpetrator punished in some way.  I also wanted to rise above the whole petty event; to think that I was a better person that the guy who would keep on holding on to a grievance years after everyone else has forgotten it.  

So I managed, by wanting one thing at one time and another thing at another time, to tie myself in knots.  Then I saw it walk away from me.  It walked slowly into the fog and was gone and I knew exactly what “it” was and what its “going away” meant and I remember hoping that it would stay gone and not ever come back.

And it hasn’t.  Yet.

The one piece of the experience I have not yet had a chance to fill in is that I had no sense at all that this was something I was doing.  This was something I was watching.  “It” was going away.  I wasn’t sending it away.  I had been trying that for a long time.  Of course, I was also trying, during that time, to have my cause judged and myself vindicated so if “it” was paying any attention to me at all, “it” must have been confused.

I am a big fan of acting in my own behalf.  I call it “agency.”  I spend a good deal of time thinking and writing about just what is worth pursuing, what kind of accomplishments I would be proud of.  This experience had nothing at all to do with agency.  When I say, as I did above, that this was something I watched, not something I did, it is agency I am ruling out.

So “he,” who was the embodiment of “it” walked away from me into the fog and I felt immediately that something important had happened.  And when I was fully awake, it felt just the same.  I felt that I was breathing more freely, more deeply, with less effort.  I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.  I felt as if I could do all the things I do in a day with more focus and more energy now that “it” had left and wasn’t coming back.

It’s been several weeks now and there has been so sign of that old internal struggle.  I haven’t had to deal with it in any way since I saw its embodiment walk away from me into the fog.  I don’t understand it at all and I am someone who really likes understanding things.  I didn’t do it, myself, and I am someone who really likes acting on his own behalf.  I am experiencing a sense of confidence that the whole thing is over.  I hope that is right, but I know I am not in control of it.  I am the beneficiary of whatever it is that happened and I am grateful.

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C’est Monyafeek

This is (yet another) celebration of the way Neal Stephenson uses language and the illustration is taken (yet again) from his Anathem.

You need to know a little bit about the story or you won’t be able to share the joke.  In Anathem, the action takes place on a very Earth-like planet called Arbre. [1]  Arbre is invaded by a space ship that is the home of four other planetary civilizations, one of which is called LaTerre and which is, in fact, Earth. [2]

The story is told by a young scholar named Fra (his title) Erasmus.  We need to know that because it tells us how he hears and understands languages from elsewhere.  “Elsewhere,” in this case, is a place on LaTerre that we know as France.

When we know that the Laterran who visits them is named Jules Verne Durand, we are prepared for the possibility that he is French.  But Erasmus doesn’t hear French and he is the one who is telling the story.  So this happens.

“The entire stage weighs considerably less than I do,” says Erasmus.  It doesn’t look like the kind of thing you would trust to get you safely into space.  Fra Jesry asks, “Where’s the rest of it?” 

“This is the whole thing,” proclaimed Jules Verne Durand, understanding it perfectly even though he was seeing it for the first time.  “The conception is monyafeek.” (page 775)

Durand sees the design, sees the function, and is immediately impressed by the thinking that has gone into it.  It is that, the whole concept, that is magnifique.

Monyafeek is so crude.  For one thing the word doesn’t look anything like magnifique.  And English speakers who have had a chance to adjust to how French words work (the -gn, for instance, and the -que) know how to hear such a word.  Erasmus does not and Stephenson gives us the word on the page just the way Erasmus hears it.  And it is never spelled according to French rules.  Always, we see the way the word looks, but we also know how it should look and we celebrate—I do, in any case—the friction between the two. [This is the way Michael Kingery, a concept artist, pictures the monyafeek.]

The second little friction is the function of the word.  You notice that Jules Verne Durand uses the word in the passage above as a predicate adjective.  The conception is monyafeek.  Erasmus’s friend, Lio, who is the local expert on these vehicles hears it as a noun and why wouldn’t he.  He says, “It’s not called a monyafeek.  It’s called…oh, never mind.”

And that “Oh…never mind” establishes that the team will continue to call them monyafeeks.  The representation of magnifique as monyafeek is just a gaffe when it first happens.  But these devices are part of a daring attack on a space ship and the attacking force, which includes Erasmus, Lio, and Durand, come to take these little devices very seriously.

That means that we get one more look at what happens to this word when Suur (her title) Tulia, part of the Arbre-based support team [3] tries to correct the usage.  That goes like this. (page 812)

Tulia: I’m going to talk you through the process of unstrapping yourself from the S2-35B.

Erasmus: Up here we call it a monyafeek.

Tulia: Whatever…

This is a whole different development, as you see.  Tulia is in a storage shed in some remote part of Arbre.  Erasmus is “on the front lines,” so to speak.  He is the one who is risking his life in deeds of derring-do and he gets to say what “we” call it.  This grotesque misspelling is now the official name of the device because that is what the people in the line of fire are calling it.  And Tulia, who knows better, says, “Whatever…”  Monyafeek is now not only a noun, and not only a term of art, but a name validated by the the pride of warriors.

Pretty cool.

I suspect that I will never hear magnifique again with having to dedicate a neuron or two to keep me from smiling along with Erasmus, Lio, and Jules Verne Durand.

[1] Stevenson says that if you have any trouble pronouncing the name of the planet, you should ask a friend who is currently studying French.  That takes care of what to do with the -re at the end.  Of course, you still have to be able to make that sound, but you get the idea.

[2]  People who live on LaTerre are called Laterrans.  Stephenson doesn’t giver any help with that, but I have chosen to accent the -terr.

[3]  Picture a very small “Houston,” as in “Houston, we have a problem.”

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