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The Rhinoceri, Washington and Lincoln

From The New York Times:

A class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for truck drivers hinged entirely on a debate that has bitterly divided friends, families and foes: The dreaded — or totally necessary — Oxford comma, perhaps the most polarizing of punctuation marks.

What ensued in the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and in a 29-page court decision handed down on Monday, was an exercise in high-stakes grammar pedantry that could cost a dairy company in Portland, Me., an estimated $10 million. […]

Legal history is replete with cases in which a comma made all the difference, like a $1 million dispute between Canadian companies in 2006 or a very costly insertion of a comma in an 1872 tariff law.

Winning Battles, Losing Wars

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As soon as it became clear, early on Wednesday morning, that Donald Trump would be America’s next president, I logged off Twitter, turned off my TV, downloaded half a dozen books from Project Gutenberg, and resolved to pay as little attention to politics as is compatible with life. Each of us handles grief differently. Some drown their sorrows in drink. I curl into the foetal position and read Jonathan Swift.

So I missed Adichie’s turn on Newsnight and the social media furore it provoked. I later learned what she had said before calmly demolishing R. Emmett Tyrrell: “If you are a white man, you don’t get to define what racism is.” This disturbing statement was received rapturously by many on the left. The Huffington Post and Mashable reported that she had “shut down a white dude.” Cosmopolitan’s Laura Beck felt her response was “perfect.” And New York Magazine’s Jenni Miller accused Tyrrell of trying to gaslight Adichie. None of these writers, and few of Adichie’s supporters on social media, appeared to understand how meaningless these small victories are in the grand scheme of things. Hillary Clinton beat Trump in all three debates. Countless white men were “schooled” on Facebook. Trump’s surrogates were verbally outmatched and outgunned on TV shows and Twitter. In the end, none of that mattered.

Humiliating closet racists or ignorant old men is an effective political tactic if theirs are minority views. But if they have an army of voters behind them, mockery and condescension are counterproductive. Adichie didn’t so much shut down one elderly conservative as shut herself off from an important audience. She made it less likely that members of a politically powerful demographic will listen to anything else she says.

Who gets to define racism? No one person.  And similarly, no one should be excluded from the process. Perhaps Adichie meant to say that Tyrrell’s privileged status as a white man doesn’t grant him the right to unilaterally redefine such terms. Perhaps. But her words were interpreted as an affirmation of the liberal consensus, the pernicious idea that victims of oppression ought to have the final say when it comes to labelling oppressive acts. According to this playbook, only women decide what sexism is and only persons of colour decide what counts as racism. The problem with this is obvious. Each group is prone to systematic errors. The ostensibly oppressed, to false positives (overdiagnosis) and the privileged, to false negatives (underdiagnosis). Also, labels are meant to provoke action from those in power, from institutions dominated by white men. If those who control such institutions don’t agree with your definition, they are unlikely to act.

Political debate, online activism and “speaking truth to power” should ultimately be judged by results, by elections won or lost, laws passed, lives changed. Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic understand this. It’s about time liberals learned the lesson as well.

Notes on the Incident

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“Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not […]. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.”

― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

(1) Tuesday – and one celebrity (talented, female) launches a salvo of hostile tweets at another (handsome, male). Elsewhere there are political crises, causes to support, bad ideas to strike down. This is a distraction, a non-event – but we are, in spite of ourselves, interested.

(2) Person, performance, place: Who is this woman? What has she done? Where was she when it began? Are her friends or handlers attempting to intervene? Is she tweeting from a locked bathroom while they bang on the door? Do they have a plan?

(3) Do the details matter? They won’t in six months. This incident will disappear from history, drowned out by a hundred others. It changes nothing about the world. So no, the details do not matter.

(4) She says things, this woman. She is, in a word, uncivil. We are struck by how hard she tries, by how much effort she puts into being obnoxious.

(5) She is like a drunk in a rubber dinghy hurling abuse at a passing cruise ship. The ship’s captain is informed. He pulls out a pair of binoculars, sees the drunk reaching, doesn’t care.

(6) Curry-scented bitch. It sounds almost affectionate, like something one might gasp out mid-orgasm or murmur while stroking a partner’s hair. One might wear it on a T-shirt or have it tattooed on one’s lower back. Scene: after a night spent serving with glory in sapphic wars, a young woman holds up two fingers to her friend’s nose. “Smell that. Yeah. Curry-scented, bitch.”

(7) Using the b-word is tricky. The male bitch is weak. The female bitch is strong. This implies that the Platonic Bitch, that ideal held only in the mind of God, is a male-female hybrid.

(8) Then there’s the risk of contamination: how do we study vulgarity without becoming vulgar ourselves? We must stand back from the stink and keep the muck off our shoes.

(9) She carries on. There is more racial hatred. More homophobia. More misogyny. We suspect her career is over. Were she white, there would be no coming back from this. She would be cast into outer darkness after a penitential tour of talk shows. But she is black. The rules are different. She may yet survive.

(10) Later, much later, she apologizes. I was angry, she says. “I had to remind him that no matter what he thinks of himself, the world still sees him as other. As they see me.

(11) And there we have it. It was always about her. We return to our lives, our news feeds and TV shows. We drop our children off at school. We pick up books from the library. But through it all, in the background, she’s still speaking. I’m persecuted, she says. You should feel persecuted too. I am insanely talented. You don’t deserve to share the air I breathe. I’m sick. I have been infected by whiteness. You are all stupid sheep. Buy my new single. Then leave everything at the foot of my throne and get the fuck out.

On Selves, Personae and Gathering Rosebuds

I.

In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul the Apostle describes his becoming all things to all people: “To the Jews I became as a Jew. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law. To the weak I became weak.” He tailored his message to each audience. For each crowd he was effectively a different person; he wore a different mask.

These days we are obsessed with authenticity. Masks make us uncomfortable. We are expected to be our truest, most unfiltered selves all the time. On reality TV shows and in politics, exhibitionists are rewarded. Contestants foolish enough to censor themselves (by, for instance, being polite to those they despise) are dismissed as inauthentic. Why is he such a snake? disgusted viewers ask when a middle-aged man smiles at an actor he would clearly rather stab. Why can’t he just be real?

When troubled youngsters have potentially life-altering breakdowns on national television, as one did on the last series of Celebrity Big Brother, legions of fans praise their emotional honesty. For this Snapchatting, Instagramming generation, feverishly tweeting its every thought and bowel movement, prudence and self-control have become dirty words. This ethos is encapsulated in the expression YOLO, an acronym famously popularised by Drake (the Canadian rapper, not the 16th century navigator). Before it was parodied into extinction, it served as a watchword for risk-taking teens everywhere. You only live once, so make it a life worth living. But for the risk-averse the exhortation works the other way: be sober, be vigilant, don’t break anything. If you do permanent damage to yourself by playing with the wrong drugs, ideologies or people, you won’t get to rewind the tape or start over.

Graceful shapeshifting was once considered an essential social skill. Now our elevation of “realness” has made it problematic. Generation Instagram encourages impulsivity – but it treats with suspicion both chameleonic adaptation and the failure to present consumers of one’s life story with easily classifiable public-facing selves or personal narratives. An exception is made for David Bowie. Everyone else must reduce themselves to a handful of labels and a single persona.

II.

I exaggerate, of course. There is no “Generation Instagram.” There are only young people whose thoughts and preferences have been made visible by social media. Youth has always been sensitive to hypocrisy and pretence (see Holden Caulfield). In truth, none of the traits I’ve identified are uniquely millennial. From ancient times writers have urged their readers both in jest and in deadly earnest to “sieze the day.”(see Horace, Andrew Marvel, Robert Herrick and Dead Poets Society). The history of literature and cinema, however, leads one to suspect that carpe diem serves more as an expression of self-interested male desire than of ungendered youthful yearning.

It is also possible that the drive to create stable, branded selves, which then have to be endlessly performed and defended in public, springs not solely or even mainly from users of social media but from the corporations to which these profiles are marketed. Users with such online identities are easier to track across platforms, target with advertising and monetize.

On Moderation

When he had put the last touches to what he had begun, the artificer balanced his own body between the two wings and hovered in the moving air. He instructed the boy as well, saying ‘Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way . . . Travel between the extremes.’

– Ovid’s Metamorphoses (translated by Anthony S. Kline)

 

London’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, is by his own admission a moderate Muslim. He lies somewhere in the middle of that continuum between Zayn Malik and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. On the one hand he’s unlikely to appear tattooed and shirtless in music videos. On the other, he won’t make London the capital of a European caliphate.

Unlike Mr Khan, many mainstream Muslims who denounce extremism are uncomfortable with the label “moderate.” It implies their faith is watered down, that they are religious dilettantes, half-hearted practitioners of Islam Lite™, part-time interns rather than full employees of Allah Inc., less than hardcore. As Ed Husain, founder of Quilliam, a London-based think-tank, puts it:

We use the designation “moderate Islam” to differentiate it from “radical Islam.” But in so doing, we insinuate that while Islam in moderation is tolerable, real Islam—often perceived as radical Islam—is intolerable. This simplistic, flawed thinking hands our extremist enemies a propaganda victory: They are genuine Muslims. In this rubric, the majority, non-radical Muslim populace has somehow compromised Islam to become moderate.

What moderates religion? Presumably education, rationality and early exposure to Western culture. Secular identities become more important than religious ones. A moderate Muslim pop star is a pop star first and a Muslim second. A moderate Muslim MP is unlikely to have purely religious reasons for voting for or against a measure. In his book Fairness Not Favours: How to Reconnect with British Muslims, Mr Khan writes:

Just as ordinary citizens have multiple identities, so do MPs. I did not come into Parliament to be a Muslim MP. And I have never held myself out as a Muslim spokesperson or community leader. I am Labour first and foremost. I am also a Fabian, a father, a husband, a Londoner, and yes, of Asian origin and Muslim faith.

Reassuring – but I suspect anyone willing to put his or her religious beliefs on the back burner isn’t committed to their absolute truth. Take so-called “moderate Christians,” a subspecies with which I am intimately familiar. They may participate in (or be sympathetic to) religious ritual, and they may take advantage of the support networks and sense of community provided by their faith, but they rarely bother with religious doctrine.

[At the moment the top definition of “moderate Christian” on Urban Dictionary, submitted four years ago by one 666dmetal666, is “someone who doesn’t believe anything in the Bible, doesn’t go to church, sins on a regular basis, but believes God exists anyway.”]

On Being a Less-Than-Ideal Citizen

Yesterday, in a moment of weakness, and because I am fond of doves, I walked into a polling station and voted for Caroline Pidgeon.

I shouldn’t have. While the uninformed – and I must count myself among their number – have a right to vote, they have a duty not to. Ignorant and irrational voters pollute the pool. They make it less likely that election results will reflect the informed preferences of their fellow citizens.

Ideals are one thing, reality is another. Keeping up with local politics has never been a priority for me. For the last few months, I’ve actively avoided news about the London Assembly and mayoral elections. Three seconds into a Zac Goldsmith interview and I’d change the channel. One glimpse of a newspaper article about Sadiq Khan and I’d turn the page. I accepted campaign leaflets, then binned them unread. Clipboard-wielding volunteers who turned up on my doorstep stood no chance. They would ask if I was familiar with their candidate’s policies and I’d invariably reply, in my best Glaswegian accent: “Naw, a just wanty wrap masel up in tin foil nice and cosy” and after a dramatic pause, “then get right inty the microwave and blow masel up tae fuck.”

Some information made it through: I know Mr Khan intends to freeze public transport fares for four years. To me this sounds like cheap populism. I know Mr Goldsmith is no expert on Bollywood movies or the Central Line, though he would like to be. And I know someone in his camp thought it wise to let the dogs out.

My fellow citizens, truth be told, are not rational. They read The Sun and the Daily Mail. On the eve of major elections they’re distracted by trivia quizzes and celebrity endorsements. They have strong opinions on issues they make no effort to understand. In this climate my unethical dalliance with Ms Pidgeon counts as only a minor transgression, no more than a microscopic drop at the deep end of a murky pool.

Flirting with Cliché

I.

The teaser for Ian McEwan’s new novel is made up entirely of stock phrases: “To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, all of art, of human endeavour, is just a speck in the universe of possible things.”

Must we – those of us who have read Hamlet and “Auguries of Innocence” – always leap from Shakespeare’s nutshell to Blake’s grains of sand? Are we men or are we automata?

II.

About online outrage he was never wrong,
The Old Master; how well he understood
Its human position. How, when the rational
Reverently, passionately seek Truth,
There always must be children
Who do not specially want to find it.

III.

Possible book title – Gonads of Greatness: From Shakespeare’s Nutshells to Blake’s Grains of Sand