Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Egghead Linguistics


Before there was political correctness there was theological correctness.  Galileo, who thought that the earth orbited the sun was required by the Roman Inquisition to say that it didn’t.  So he said it didn’t, but muttered a second opinion under his breath,  Eppur si muove.   Perhaps he followed the famous Muslim philosopher, Averro√ęs, who, trying to reconcile the Koranic tradition with Aristotle, sought mental wiggle room in the notion of the “double truth”.  Truths arrived at from theology and truths arrived at from philosophy, though apparently incompatible, could both be “true”.  For example, the world could be both eternal (Aristotle) and created in time (Scriptural tradition).  Christian Averroists got into big trouble in the thirteenth century.

            I was surprised to see in the Times on Monday an essay by Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front party in France.  This was rather like discovering a previously unnoticed “Gospel of Moloch” tucked away among the unread apocryphal books.  The essay was arresting, and the numerous readers’ comments even more so.  My memory, once a steel trap, is now more like a broken, rusty hinge, so you must take my word for the footnote when I say that there is a polemical passage in Jerome, debating the opinion of the mighty Augustine, in which he boasts somewhat as follows: “I judge an opinion not by whose it is but by what it says.”  Readers’ comments on Ms. Le Pen’s essay were sharply and fairly evenly divided.  What struck me about them, however, was this.  Those who approved the essay tended to do so in terms of its specific ideas and the quality of its argumentation.  Those who disapproved rarely even mentioned its ideas, declaring instead its a priori illegitimacy on the basis of the identity of its author.  Some of the “antis” accused her of bad faith for not clearly displaying in the essay the “fascist”, “xenophobic”, and “far right” pathologies said to define her and her political party.  Some others criticized the Times for “legitimating” her hateful views.

            The title of Ms. Le Pen’s piece was “To Call This Threat by its Name” (“Bien nommer la menace”).  Following the generally sound rule that the first step in addressing a problem is correctly identifying what the problem is, she wants to call the slaughter at the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo and the anti-semitic attack at the kosher grocery Islamist terrorism.  She thinks the French government has been perversely reluctant to utter the words “Islamic” or “Islamist” in this context, though in fact many French officials have been models of plain-spokenness compared with President Obama, various “spokespersons” of our State Department, and indeed numerous other thought-leaders here and abroad.  Our enemy, according to them, is not Islamic terrorism but “extremism”.

            The essential evil of extremism in American politics was definitively established as long ago as 1964 when Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for the presidency committed one of the century’s great oratorical gaffes.  “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he said to raucous applause as he accepted the nomination. “And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”  How this sentiment differed from that of Kennedy’s inaugural speech of 1961 would be difficult to say (“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the success of liberty”) except of course that it was expressed three years later.

            Were we not dealing with a clear and present danger horrible in its nature, the linguistic convolutions of a Howard Dean—as an example chosen among dozens--might be comical.  The self-proclaimed caliphate ISIS (i.e., “Islamic State”) necessarily claims Sharia law as its constitutional basis.  That is one feature of its intentionally Islamic character. According to Howard Dean, however, Islam has nothing to do with ISIS, and should not be mentioned in the same breath. Yet most countries are allowed to name themselves.  It is now rather gauche to call Zimbabwe “Rhodesia”.  The United States is currently conducting obscure and perhaps endless negotiations with “the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the name confirmed by 92% of Iranian voters in 1992.  Perhaps Mr. Dean will convey the news to Supreme Leader Khamenei that despite what the ayatollah may think, his governance has nothing to do with Islam!

            I grasp the good intentions behind this linguistic tomfoolery.  But one can avoid the “broad brush” without recourse to the airbrush.   Surely we should seek irenic and courteous relations with all peoples of the earth.  But if you cannot distinguish between the statements Some X is Y and All X is Y, you should probably not be a practicing dialectician.  What is the happy mean of which slaughtering cartoonists is the extreme?  I do not know, but I doubt that we are well served by Egghead Linguistics as found in Alice in Wonderland: “'When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less'.” 

Egghead Linguists