What was unacceptable can become acceptable

from: Marantz, Andrew. 2019. Anti-Social: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation. New York: Viking.

Marantz writes –

After Trump won, the late professor Richard Rorty enjoyed a posthumous moment of mini-virality. My [Marantz’s] Facebook feed was full of people posting an eerily prescient excerpt from Rorty’s Achieving Our Country, a collection of political lectures published in 1998. With the left wing of the Democratic Party in decline [during Clinton’s years, presumably], Rorty argued, the only politicians “channeling the mounting rage of the newly dispossessed” were right-wing populists. If this continued, he wrote, then, sooner or later,

“something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for [both Trump and Sanders, although for Sanders primarily urban and suburban]…. One thing that is very likely to happen is that gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out [Trump only]. Jocular contempt for women will come back in fashion…. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back.”

What was unacceptable can become acceptable. Acceptability is just a norm, and norms can change for the better or for the worse.

Whenever this passage was posted on Facebook, commenters tended to treat Rorty’s words like a prophecy, a revelation of the fact that the American experience had always been doomed to fail. But Rorty put no stock in revelation. “We should face up to unpleasant truths about ourselves,” he continued, “but we should not take those truths to be the last word about our chances for happiness, or about our national character. Our national character is still in the making.” As the title of this book suggests, he did not believe that we are doomed or that we are saved. He did not believe that We Are Good or that We Are Bad. He believed something more liberating and also more terrifying: that history is contingent, that the arc bends the way people bend it. The American attitude toward fascism has long been an article of faith: it can’t happen here. But if history is contingent – if anything can happen – then our worst fears are not impossible but improbable, which is not at all the same thing. (59-60)

According to Rorty, the way a society talks to itself – through books, through popular films, through schools and universities, through mass media – determines that society’s beliefs, its politics, its very culture. (60)

Rorty argued that a transition from one moral vocabulary [a broad system of thought; how a society talks to itself] to another happens roughly the way a paradigm shift happens in science. (60)

“The world does not speak,” Rorty wrote. “Only we do.” To change how we talk is to change who we are. (61)

‘Sorry, We’re Closed’

Colorful signs are posted around Lake Park here with the message “Sorry, we’re closed.”

A number of people seem to understand this as meaning that the park’s walkways are closed. The number of walkers and dogs sharply decreased for awhile.

Closer inspection indicates that only the park’s amenities are closed and events have been cancelled. By amenities the city means the restrooms. As it is, one restroom remains open.

The park is not closed. The walkways are about eight feet wide so it’s easy to keep six feet away from other walkers.

It turns out that the restrooms are not closed because of the virus. People have been stealing toilet paper and paper towels! This in a middle to upper class neighborhood. Shame.

See you tomorrow, over the radio

Kai Ryssdal hosts the public radio (listener supported) program Marketplace on a daily basis Monday through Friday.

He signs off the program saying,

See you tomorrow, everybody.

Am I the only one whose radio doesn’t come with a camera? Can Ryssdal see me through his website?

Stick that in your tea and drink it.

Gourmet vanilla extract

McCormick  markets gourmet premium pure organic vanilla extract. They tout its quality by telling us that the hand-picked vanilla beans “are left on the vine for up to 9 months to ensure vanilla flavor the way it was intended to be.”

So then, what does “up to 9 months” on the vine mean? Does it mean that some of the beans stay on the vine for only one month? Does it in fact mean that only a token number of beans remain on the vine for a full nine months?

My curmudgeonly take on writing hardened by reading American journalist Theodore M. Bernstein (1904–1979). He was the assistant managing editor of The New York Times from 1951 to 1969.

Among his several books, he wrote Watch Your Language: A Lively, Informal Guide to Better Writing, Emanating from the News Room of the New York Times  (1958). (My copy is still boxed up from my move ten months ago.)

So how am I doing in the writing department? Do I write better after hot tea with sugar? Of course, you wouldn’t know.


See Theodore M. Bernstein papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.

Acquittal: freed from charges

I found these notes after the previous post on the subject:

A not guilty verdict is not exoneration except in a colloquial sense.

U.S. President Donald Trump claims that the Senate will exonerate him. “I’ve done nothing wrong.” What he doesn’t know – or doesn’t want to admit – is that a not guilty vote doesn’t mean innocent.

An acquittal, which is to say a preponderance of not guilty votes in the Senate, would only free President Trump from the impeachment charges. No explanation is attached to the individual votes, though.

A Senator who votes not guilty may intend to say that the President is innocent of the charges. He simply did not do what he was accused of doing. Another Senator might intend that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict. The President may still be guilty – just not in the eyes of the law.

What is the difference here?

Those who believe that he is innocent will still associate themselves with him. Those who believe that the President probably did what he was accused of will distance themselves from him.

Similarly with voters, although it is more complicated. People have been known to hold their noses when they reach a ballot box.

‘Not guilty’ is not ‘innocent’

President Donald Trump will go on trial in the U.S. Senate, probably in January 2020.

Senators will choose how to vote: guilty or not guilty. They cannot vote innocent.

A not guilty vote is ambiguous. Is the defendant innocent of charges, “exonerated” in everyday speech? Or did the prosecutors fail to give evidence that rose to the standard of “no reasonable doubt”?

Anyone who will claim that the President was exonerated is speaking colloquially but not legally or morally.

This figure of speech, ‘exonerated’ was previously declared by the President and his supporters after Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller issued his report. This way of speaking is feel-good speech.

The Mueller report did not find sufficient evidence that the Trump election campaign coordinated or cooperated with Russian intelligence agents. That’s it. They did find smoke but failed to find a fire.

President Trump was not exonerated. The failure to find unambiguous evidence doesn’t mean that evidence doesn’t exist. Evidence may yet turn up. Then again maybe not.

The final jury of history has yet to convene.


Extra strength pain relief

If  there are no regular strength pain relievers on the shelf – 325 mg of acetaminophen (Tylenol) – is a 500 mg tablet really extra strength?

What’s really important is that acetaminophen is dangerous in amounts that people are liable to take. It’s dangerous to the liver. An overdose could be fatal.

The directions for the package I just bought are to take 2 tablets every 6 hours while symptoms last. Some people might be inclined to take 8 tablets a day. But, “do not take more than 6 tablets in 24 hours.”

So, pharmaceutical companies encourage us to buy a product that is not safe unless you read the the fine print.

Another reason for disdaining Big Pharma.

A caveat: I live in a town where most people are seniors – arthritis city. Maybe there’s little demand for regular strength pain relief. Thank G-d that I don’t have joint pain.