Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Pedantic, but pragmatic

The Times of London introduces a column on language written by Oliver Kamm.
Mr. Kamm, whose column is called “The Pedant,” announces that he hopes to rescue pedantry, “an obsession with linguistic precision” that “prizes form over style” from its negative connotations. His sense of pedantry is “an insistence on reasonable accuracy,” a pragmatic pedantry.

To do this he is willing to heave over the side such dubious cargo as the prohibitions against splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions. It is a promising start. He will bear watching.

The Republic of Moronia

James Madison believed that a literate, educated populace was indispensable for a representative democracy, that the intrusion of religion into politics produced toxic effects, and that the Constitution he helped design contained enough safety valves to check and correct the excesses of popular enthusiasms. He is the hero of Charles P. Pierce’s Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free (Doubleday, 293 pages, $26).

The brio of his opening denunciation of the imbecilities that mark our public life charmed me in a previous post, but his book is more complex and more serious than those early passages suggest. I want to tease out a few strands.

Item: Mr. Madison, mentioned prominently in each chapter, is the standard, the measure of how far our public life has strayed from what it was intended to be.

Item: Using the 19th-century crackpot Ignatius Donnelly (father of the modern fantasy of the Lost Continent of Atlantis, diligent searcher for cryptograms in the work of Shakespeare proving that Francis Bacon was the author) as his standard, he sets out a theory of the role of the crank in American culture. America, he argues, is particularly hospitable to cranks — which is a good thing, since they explore ideas at or beyond the edge of the mainstream. The problem comes when crank ideas are carelessly incorporated into the mainstream.

Item: The means by which crackpot ideas overwhelm mainstream discourse are his “Three Great Premises”: (1) “Any theory is valid if it moves units.” That is, it is valid if it can be successfully marketed. (2) “Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.” (3) “Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is measured by how fervently they believe it.”* A consequence is what Mr. Pierce calls “the war on expertise.” Thus talk radio. Thus the scientific “controversy” over evolution and intelligent design. Thus Justice Antonin Scalia saying publicly that the United States should model its anti-terrorism policy on Jack Bauer, the hero of 24 (a show Mr. Pierce characterizes as “torture porn”).**

Item: This corruption of discourse comes about not merely because of the slack standards of talk radio or the willingness of politicians to pander. It comes about because all the news media fail in their responsibilities to the truth and to the public. The news media publish and broadcast questionable statements that they do not question and palpably false statements that they do not challenge — and we, Mr. Madison’s informed public, passively tolerate it.

There is historical continuity between Mr. Pierce’s assessment of the Republic and H.L. Mencken’s view of his native land, which he occasionally referred to as Moronia:

And here [in the United States], more than anywhere else I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly—the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries and extravagances—is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.

*We even have a word for this phenomenon, truthiness, coined by that accomplished satirist Stephen Colbert. Truthiness is what one believes by internal conviction or gut feeling to be true, regardless of available facts or logic.

**The crackpot views Mr. Pierce anatomizes are mainly those of contemporary conservatives. He argues that that is a proper focus because it is conservative positions of dubious validity that have held sway over the country for the past few decades. I think that he could have given space to zanies of the left, such as Cynthia McKinney, the former Democratic congresswoman from Georgia and Green Party presidential candidate, but I take his point.