Monthly Archives: November 2011
This is a fascinating excerpt from a blog post about Newt Gingrich:
Linguists have long known not to be distracted by the decorative aspects of language, and that profound substance can often be found in unexpected packages; indeed, they are trained to find it there. A classic study, performed by the University of Pennsylvania’s William Labov back in the 1960s, shows that to be the case. Labov showed that in Philadelphia’s inner city, those speaking the roughest “Ebonics” were often reasoning more deeply than more educated, middle-class black neighbors. (This was just before middle class blacks started moving to the suburbs in the wake of the Fair Housing Act.)
Here’s a male teenager asked whether he believes in heaven:
Like some people say if you’re good an’ shit, your spirit goin’ t’heaven … ‘n’ if you bad, your spirit goin’ to hell. Well, bullshit! Your spirit goin’ to hell anyway, good or bad. ‘Cause, you see, doesn’ nobody really know that it’s a God, y’know, ‘cause I mean I have seen black gods, pink gods, white gods, all color gods, and don’t nobody know it’s really a God. An’ when they be sayin’ if you good, you goin’ t’heaven, tha’s bullshit, ‘cause you ain’t goin’ to no heaven — ‘cause it ain’t no heaven for you to go to!
On the surface that hardly sounds like what we call sober reasoning. However, Labov laid out the clear formal lines of logic expressed in this slangy, nonstandard vehicle of speech:
1. Everyone has a different idea of what God is like.
2. Therefore nobody knows that God really exists.
3. If there is heaven, it was made by God.
4. If God doesn’t exist, he couldn’t have made heaven.
5. Therefore heaven does not exist.
6. Therefore you can’t go to heaven.
Compare this to the more bourgeois person asked whether there is such a thing as witchcraft:
I do feel that in certain cultures there is such a thing as witchcraft, or some sort of science of witchcraft; I don’t think that it’s just a matter of believing hard enough that there is such a thing as witchcraft. I do believe that there is such a thing that a person can put himself in a state of mind, or that something could be given to them to intoxicate them in a certain – to a certain frame of mind – that – that could actually be considered witchcraft.
A teacher would have no problem with the phraseology; we all see the basic confidence in self-expression. In a television debate, this may not have even been considered a gaffe. But technically this guy didn’t say a thing of use. Is there witchcraft or not? What is it that “could be considered witchcraft”? Smooth talking and smooth thinking reveal themselves to be hardly the same thing.
During my brief stint as a journalist, I found that taking notes as someone spoke was a good exercise in sniffing out this kind of rhetoric. If someone talks for three minutes and you’re unable to write down a declarative sentence summarizing what they’ve just said, they were speaking to distract you, not to inform you.
This is reposted from The Specifics Hardly Matter, the movies blog I have with my friend Dave.
So as you probably know from my Facebook wall, the last few weeks I’ve been totally obsessed with this album:
Like most music I like, I’m not going to make the argument that Rye Rye’s mixtape is objectively good. It just happens to hit a lot of my personal preferences: It’s loud, fast, cacophonous and utterly unserious. I like music that sets a tone, regardless of what it is, and Rye Rye makes whatever I’m doing feel shabby and frantic.
You know I have really weird taste in music, and that I don’t really defend my favorite bands on objective grounds. Fuck Buttons and Dan Deacon, for example, which I listen to by myself more than almost anything else, are banished from my ‘houseparty’ and ‘friends for dinner’ playlists. And stuff that’s palatable for when I have people over–Crystal Castles, Rihanna, Bon Iver–are usually bands I like but don’t love.
For some reason I think of music as an almost exclusively subjective taste. I’m not going to bother defending, say, Low Limit because I basically agree with the objective criticism that it’s overlong, stressful and contains an aura of ASBO-teen violence. I sort of like my music to be all those things, so I’m not going to argue that they aren’t true.
For some reason I feel almost exactly the opposite about movies. There’s still a subjective component, but it’s vastly overshadowed by objective characteristics like story structure, ‘invisible’ acting and coherent direction. I don’t know why this is, but I feel like lots of movies are seriously hella shitty, and I’m willing to defend my opinion in a way I wouldn’t be if they were songs.
And then there’s books. I feel like literature is on the extreme ‘objective’ end of the scale, especially in the public consciousness. There are novels that you are supposed to read, no matter what your personal or aesthetic preferences. Books get described as ‘classics’—an objective, not subjective, term—much more often than music or movies. You’re sort of contractually obligated as an educated citizen of a liberal democracy to appreciate, if not love, books like Moby Dick and Catcher in the Rye. Defending your argument about those works by saying something like ‘I prefer stories where the good guys win’ or ‘I’d rather have a story in the third person’ would mark you as a philistine.
I don’t know if I’m arguing for more subjective criteria in books, or more objective criteria in music. Or anything at all, actually. I’m just increasingly aware that my mind cleaves the world into two categories: Things I like, and things that are good. And the more confident I am in the former, the less I worry about the latter.
So I’m reading The Selling of the President 1968, and there’s a few fascinating chapters on Nixon’s TV ads:
According to the book, the campaign basically never used moving images in their TV spots. It was all just photo stills with Nixon’s voiceover.
It’s like seeing some paleolithic fossil of what would become PowerPoint.
The campaign staffer in charge of creating these ads is a ‘McCarthy Democrat’, whatever that is, and openly talks shit about his own work:
‘We try to create an atmosphere through our selection of pictures […] The problem we’ve had, in most cases, is Nixon himself. He says such incredible pap. In fact, the radicalness of this approach is in the fact of creating an image without actually saying anything. The worlds are given meaning by the impressions created by the stills.
Keep in mind, this quote about the commercials is by the guy who is in charge of making them. It makes them somehow even more dystopian.
‘Nixon has not only developed the use of the platitude, he’s raised it to an art form. It’s mashed potatoes. It appeals to the lowest common denominator in American taste. […] The commercials are successful because people are able to relate them to their own delightful misconceptions of themselves and their country.
‘Have you noticed? The same faces reappear in different spots. The same pictures are used again and again. They become symbols, recurring like notes in an orchestrated piece. The Alabama sharecropper with the vacant stare, the vigorious young steelworker, the grinning soldier.
‘And the rosier the sunset, the more wholesome the smiling face, the more it conforms to their false vision of what they are and what their country is.’
Forty-three years later, what’s most striking about these is that, the political cliches haven’t changed at all.
American primary political imagery is still all nuclear families and fucking amber waves of grain. American jobs are exclusively factory workers, farmers, and firemen. No one in American political discourse sits in front of a computer all day.
The images we use to demonstrate America’s greatness haven’t matured since the invention of television. Two-parent families, securely employed factory workers and family farmers make up a fraction of our population, but a majority of our political fodder.
These images were already out of date in 1968. The technologies we use to deliver them may have developed, but the Alabama sharecropper is still staring, from his unreality into ours.
So last night I watched 12th & Delaware, an HBO documentary on abortion from last year. It’s good in a predictable sort of way. I don’t think I learned anything about the principles behind the abortion debate, but I picked up a few things about the logistics.
I spent most of the movie thinking about Lake of Fire – another, slightly more interesting, abortion documentary I watched on YouTube a few months ago. The point from that movie that’s stuck with me is that the arguments for and against abortion aren’t really about abortion at all. Abortion just the vessel into which everyone – the hippies, the Christians, the women’s-libbers, the doomsdayers, whatever – put their calcified ideologies and preconceptions.
Watching 12th and Delaware it kept striking me that abortion could easily have gone to the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. I can imagine a world in which right-wingers were adamantly pro-choice. A small-government ideology is completely in sync with advocating for more access to abortion. ‘I don’t want the government telling me what to do with my body!’ is the kind of statement the Tea Party would support to the ends of the Earth–just not to the uterus.
Similarly, there’s nothing internally contradictory about left-wingers being pro-life. You can draw a straight line from supporting human rights, to banning the death penalty, to opposing abortion. If life and human dignity are worth preserving, why stop at the birth canal?
I want to watch a movie that tells me how abortion got here. Why is it one of the few social issues on which it’s impossible to be agnostic? Watching 12th and Delaware (and Lake of Fire, for that matter), I can’t help but find pro-life and pro-choice activists equally distasteful. Shining light on a shadow doesn’t make it easier to see.