Damn the facts–full speed ahead!

As far as I can tell, Jamie Kirchick, assistant editor for The New Republic,[*] has devoted most of his young professional life to becoming exactly the sort of bright boy at the The New Republic whom Randolph Bourne had in mind when he wrote The War and the Intellectuals, and who, decades later, would make the best and the brightest into a bitter national joke. In any case, here’s something from his latest, a TNR blog post on Barack Obama’s relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and his recent speech on race:

Finally, what concerns me most about the Wright controversy isn’t the Pastor’s racist statements or even his unhinged views of Israel. I don’t think Obama agrees with any of that nonsense. What concerns me is the sort of comment that Wright made about Harry Truman’s ending World War II, that We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. This smacks of the Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky/Nation magazine wing of the American left that Democrats serious about this country’s security (and winning in November) should not want within 100 miles of the next administration.

— James Kirchick, The Plank (2008-03-21): Thoughts on a Speech

Let’s set aside, for the moment, Rev. Wright’s confusion about personal pronouns. I didn’t bomb Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and I don’t think that he did, either. But that’s apparently not what Kirchick has a problem with. What he has a problem with is what such statements about the U.S. government smack of.

But, Mr. Kirchick, no matter what it may smack of to mention it, isn’t it true that the United States Army bombed Hiroshima?

No matter what it may smack of to mention it, isn’t it true that the United States Army bombed Nagasaki?

No matter what it may smack of to mention it, isn’t it true that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed somewhere around 210,000 civilian men, women and children — about 70 times the number of civilians killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

As far as I can tell, nothing that has provoked Jamie Kirchick’s outrage here is actually, you know, false. Perhaps he thinks that these are facts which it is rude to mention in public. But if being taken for serious about this country’s security (which is TNR-speak for this government’s wars) requires not mentioning them–that is, if being taken for serious requires silence or dissembling about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people for the sake of a shared vision of American power, then it is well worth asking just who the hell these assholes are who we’re supposed to prove our seriousness to. And what their notion of seriousness really amounts to. And why anyone should think she has to prove a damned thing to them.

(Via David Gordon, via Lew Rockwell 2008-03-23.)

* You may remember Kirchick from an earlier piece he published in TNR during the late unpleasantness.

Further reading:

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10 replies to Damn the facts–full speed ahead! Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Anon73

    Continuing the pronoun pondering, I don’t really agree with the method of alternating “he” and “she” to make language gender-neutral; it provokes too much confusion when one actually does want to specify a person’s gender. I think the best method is to switch to new pronouns like “ze” and use he/she when gender matters to a discussion. But then I favor talking about kibibytes and mebibytes, so what do I know….

  2. Rad Geek

    I don’t actually alternate pronouns very often; with a very few exceptions, I just always use she in preference to he as a gender-indefinite pronoun. But in any case I don’t see either practice as posing much of a stylistic problem when you do want to specify gender: you just do that in the antecedent, rather than in the pronoun. In a language that had no gendered pronouns, that’s what you’d have to do anyway.

    Anyone who likes words like ze, hir, ey, xe, thon, etc. should feel free to use them as widely as they can; I’m certainly not going to begrudge them the minimal effort it takes on my part to pick up on new monosyllables. But I generally don’t like them, stylistically speaking, because they usually don’t sound much like English–they don’t fit very well into the phonetic structure of either formal English or dialect. (For example, how is hir even supposed to be pronounced by an English speaker?)

    The one big exception to that is the singular they, which comes out of living speech and which flourishes in most dialects because in most of the constructions you might use it in, it sounds pretty natural. But it often gets frowned on and doesn’t have much uptake by self-conscious language reformers, because the kind of people who would actually use a word like ze in writing or speech also tend to be the kind of people who would feel awkward about using an incorrect singular they.

    If yo gets some uptake, that would sound fairly natural, too, and would sidestep whatever uneasiness people may feel about the singular they.

  3. Laura J.

    “Yo”? How curious. I don’t think I could easily get used to it – it simultaneously sounds too much like English “you” and Romance first-person pronouns for my tastes. But then, I don’t have a grammatical gap to fill there since I routinely use “they” as a singular pronoun when there isn’t one specific gendered person being referred to.

  4. Anon73

    Yo quiero some decent pronouns…

  5. Roderick T. Long

    Shakespeare occasionally uses “they” as a singular pronoun, as I recall.

  6. Rad Geek

    As do Jane Austen and the King James Version of the Bible. (Cf. 1 for still more examples.) But of course discomfort with the singular they has more or less nothing to do with the norms underlying actually-existing good English, either written or spoken, and everything to do with a fetishized ideal of how a logical language should work, or, more concretely, with participating in a particular culture of correction and officious priggishness, which institutional schooling browbeats most educated professionals into accepting.

  7. Anon72

    nothing to do with the norms underlying actually-existing good English, either written or spoken, and everything to do with a fetishized ideal of how a logical language should work

    Well I think clarity and consistency are always good things to strive for in a language; I just don’t see the singular “they” as satisfying either.

  8. Rad Geek

    Anon72:

    I think clarity and consistency are always good things to strive for in a language

    I agree with the principle, but not with the application of it.

    Can you think of any actual cases in your life where somebody used the singular they and you couldn’t understand what they were saying because of it?

    If so, what was the case? If not, then it seems like your worry about clarity is misplaced.

    As for consistency, is it a violation of consistency for English to have a single word, you, for the second-person singular and the second-person plural? If not, how is that different from having a singular they? If so, does it rub you the wrong way when someone uses you in the plural (or singular) just as much as when they use they in the singular? If it does, do you fix the problem by introducing dialectical constructions like y’all or youse or yuns in formal contexts? If it doesn’t, what do you suppose accounts for the difference in your reaction?

· April 2008 ·

  1. Anon72

    As for consistency, is it a violation of consistency for English to have a single word, you, for the second-person singular and the second-person plural?

    Yes. I don’t like “y’all”, but it would be nice if the language had separate words for the singular and plural forms. If you want to know my philosophy on language, I think Heinlein was right when he said words should mirror the way we think about reality. Addressing a single person is very different from addressing a crowd, so it’s logical to have different words for each. I’d say similar considerations apply to neutral pronouns; sometimes people want to refer to someone of certain but unknown gender, and he/she/it doesn’t cut it. However, I don’t necessarily agree with Hofstadter that sexism is partly due to gendered pronouns.

    Incidentally I was reading an old grammar guide (circa 1961) and when listing the different genders it said something to the effect of “he, she, and it are for male living things, female living things, and non-living things (neuter) respectively”. It’s interesting how the original english speakers decided a fourth category of living-but-necessarily-gendered was unimportant.

  2. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-04-01 – Grammatical Investigations: she, he, ze, and they:

    […] week I wrote about Jamie Kirchick’s latest excursion into truthiness for The New Republic’s blogs; the comments seem to have lit out on an interesting tangent […]

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