Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Denying the Major--Also Assorted Lieutenants


W. C. Fields as Wilkins Micawber, deficit-scold

I have become increasingly interested in recent years in the verb deny and its nominative offspring denial and denier.  In a very funny and protracted exchange of insults between Prince Hal and Falstaff in Shakespeare’s First Part of King Henry the Fourth, we get the following.

Prince:  And thou a natural coward, without instinct.
Falstaff: I deny your major…

A lot of ink has been expended in the attempt to explicate this passage.  What Falstaff means by major seems clear enough.  It comes from the technical vocabulary of the medieval logicians, and it refers to the major premise of a syllogism.    The schoolbook example of a syllogism was this:
            All men are mortal.           
            Socrates is a man.
            Ergo, Socrates is mortal.
The major premise is that all men are mortal, a fact taken to be undeniable.  The minor premise, that Socrates is a man, is likewise taken as undeniable.  The problem is that the Prince has made no syllogistic argument, except perhaps by implication: “Only cowards flee from battle,” as Falstaff has just fled in ignominious fashion.

            To deny something, etymologically speaking, is to say no to it.  Denial ought to operate with regard to actual facts, though factual denial may require yet further interrogation.  You may absolutely deny that you murdered Colonel Mustard in the library with a candlestick if (a) you were at the time of the murder fully occupied with Lady Bellebosom in the bedroom, or (b) you used a pistol.  But more and more denial is becoming a matter of opinion.  This mode of denial is often signaled by the proximity of the adverb surely.  “Surely you will not deny that Bach is a greater musician than Brahms.”  Well, you might in fact.  Maybe.

            So erratic have been the linguistic wanderings of deny-words that denial now means saying no to something that is true as often as to something that is false.  We have Holocaust-denial and AIDS-denial, birth-certificate-denial, 9/11- denial, etc.  Practically all of us are “in denial” about something or other.

            Among the privileges of teaching at a major university is the opportunity to rub shoulders with the kinds of celebrity professors and “public intellectuals” who tend to be fairly thick on the ground in places like Oxford, Paris, Geneva, New Haven, Chicago, Berkeley and other particularly lush groves of Academe.  If my own experience at Princeton is a safe guide, it is true, the shoulder-rubbing is mainly metaphorical, since Professor Famous is much more likely to be on a book tour or testifying in Washington than attending another dull meeting of the Library Committee, but we are at least all listed on the same mastheads.  My experience also suggests that it is safer to deny some things than others.

            One of my eminent colleagues, the physicist Will Happer, has gained mainly local opprobrium as a “global warming skeptic”.  In fact his skepticism had something to do with the silent substitution of the phrase “climate change” for “global warming” in public discourse.  A second eminence, the Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman has gained mainly local approbation as a “deficit skeptic”, or a scold of what he calls “deficit-scolds,” folks who worry about the fact that America is many trillions of dollars in debt.

 Professor Paul Krugman, deficit-scold scold

            I am neither a physicist nor an economist but a student of literature.  Hence my possibly eccentric subordination of the theories of J. M. Keynes to those of Wilkins Micawber: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."*

            It is pretty clear where President Obama’s selective denials prevail from two passages in his much-praised Second Inaugural Address.

¶We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.  Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms… 

¶We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.  But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. 

            I am among those who fret perhaps too much about the fate of future generations of Americans, beginning with my own grandchildren.  But like Falstaff I must deny the Prince’s major.  Raging fires, droughts, and powerful storms did not begin in the Industrial Revolution.  Although the twentieth century witnessed new heights (or depths) of incendiary warfare, the possibility of a “natural” disaster such as the London Fire of 1666 or the Chicago Fire of 1871 is in fact now quite remote.

            As to “the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit”—well, call me skeptical.  Our politicians are not really into “hard choices,” since making them might prove fatal to re-election.  In my opinion, “the generation that built this country” has long since been in its collective grave.  Furthermore I find the President’s use of the word invest rather peculiar.  But there is no need to dabble in possible quibbles when there is a more obvious, simple matter of mathematical logic to be addressed.

            Even a President cannot spend the same dollar twice.  You can either use up all the nation’s money paying for Social Security and Medicare for us geezers or you can spend it on something else.  Guns or butter.  Cat scans on demand or high-speed rail.  If you want seriously to reduce the deficit, let alone retire it, you need either to increase your tax revenues significantly or to reduce your expenditures, also significantly.  In fact it’s pretty likely that you have to do both.  I want to believe our leaders when they tell us that “America’s best days are still ahead”; but it’s a little rich to claim that saddling our school children with yet more debt will usher in the millennium.  And I deny that I am in denial!

*Charles Dickens, in David Copperfield