Category Archives: Words

A Modest What?

The New York Times has this article on Michael Bloomberg, which contains this offending tidbit:

Which opens the door to a Swiftian modest proposal, one that might appeal to any billionaire independent presidential candidate who knows the art of a deal: Rather than try to win the White House outright — a long shot — an independent candidate could instead try for a king-making (or queen-making) bloc of votes in the Electoral College.

John Swift’s original “A Modest Proposal” satirically referred to eating Irish babies. So, I’m kind of confused about how this is Swiftian — unless my satire-detector is completely off. Yeah, it’s a Swiftian modest proposal, if you also believe that Alanis Morissette understands the word “ironic.”

[Disclaimer: I am only harping on one thing. I make no other claims about the article, the author, or the media, or whatever.]

Writings against God and religion

Since the beginning of time, students have been admonished not to use introductory sentences which are wildly general. I’ve been indoctrinated with this principle since high school, and I’ve even been warned in college. My TA in my philosophy of mind class advised us not to start our essay with something like, “Since the beginning of time, people have wondered if ‘I’ refers or not.” Not only is it bad writing, but it is inaccurate. We didn’t start wondering about it until the 20th century (however, most of us don’t worry about it at all).

Imagine my surprise when a writer for the New York Times uses this type of shitty introductory sentence for a blog entry. Stanley Fish, from behind the TimesSelect wall tries to defend theism from the onslaught of the recent books by Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens. I’m going to show you the offending sentence, with a few follow-up sentences for context:

Writings against God and religion have been around as long as God and religion have been around. But every so often an epidemic of the genre breaks out and a spate of such writings achieves the status of notoriety (which is what their authors had been aiming for). This has now happened to three books published in the last three years: Sam Harris’s “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason” (2004, 2005), Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” (2006) and Christopher Hitchens’s “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (2007).

I know, I know, who am I to criticize someone’s English? What authority do I have? What have I published? Who have I taught? Good questions. Who am I? I’m just an observer, and I’ve observed that that sentence is horrible. I make no other remarks on anyone’s command of the English language. Furthermore, if you disagree with me on the merits of wildly general introductory sentences qua good English [Note: Is this even grammatically correct?], then you can at least agree that the sentence leaves out a lot of history.

First of all, writing itself hasn’t been around as long as religion has been around. But that’s just nitpicky. The second, and better, point is that writings against God and religion haven’t been around because such writers have been fearful for their reputation, livelihood, and lives for most of the time God and religion have been around. I’d argue that religious tolerance and freedom of religion are modern concepts, let alone freedom from religion. John Locke’s landmark A Letter Concerning Toleration advocated religious tolerance, but left out atheists.

Religion has long suppressed criticism. Galileo was punished for contradicting Church teaching, even though he had no quarrel with God himself. Even if criticism has occasionally surfaced, the critics weren’t around for very long afterwards.

While there is evidence of anti-theist writing from antiquity (namely, Epicurus), this does not excuse the poor sentence. Among Socrates’s charges was believing in strange, new gods. He received the death penalty. After the Roman Empire fell, humanity took great steps backwards. “Every so often an epidemic of the genre breaks out”? Please, point to me an epidemic of these writings before the Age of Enlightenment.

For a long time, the Catholic Church forbid translating the Bible into the vernacular. The Bible was in Latin, while the people didn’t speak Latin. The absurdities of the Bible were hidden from the public. How could anyone criticize the Bible if they couldn’t read it?

To me, Stanley Fish’s introductory sentences are not only overly general, but also misleading. Atheists have not always had such opportunity to point out the flaws in the concepts of God and religion precisely because of the horrific actions of the followers of God and religion.

Climate Disruption

I’ve mentioned this in passing before, but now I really want to emphasize it: We should refer to “climate disruption” as opposed to any other phraseology. It is the only phrase which evokes the proper mental imagery, unless someone can think of anything better.

The phrase “climate change” is empty; it doesn’t mean anything. When the hell does the climate not change? Why would change necessarily be bad? Saying “climate change” manages to communicate nothing useful about the actual phenomenon. It implies that the climate is some fixed entity, which it isn’t. Furthmore, adding “global” in front of it is unnecessary; that’s mostly (but not completely) redundant.

Meanwhile, “global warming” sounds like a pretty fun thing. Who doesn’t want things a little warmer? I’m wearing a jacket right now. When you tell people the temperature is going to rise, they don’t think anything of it. What can a few degrees possibly do? Then, when they see that the temperature varies so much in different areas, they discount any possibility of warming at all. They can’t worry about warming in and of itself.

That’s why I prefer “climate disruption.” When I think of climate disruption, I think about the ways humans have devastated other ecosystems. We have dead zones in our seas. We’ve deforested and over-fished. We’ve ruined the environment in many areas and now we’re doing the same thing to our atmosphere. And devastating the atmosphere isn’t something that stays in a local area — it affects all of us.

The problem with the climate isn’t change or warming, exactly, it’s the disruption that is necessarily coupled with those. We’re pumping obscene amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. I mean, come on, it should be common sense at this point. We keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere and we’re going to mess up the atmosphere the same way we’ve messed up other things. We’re going to “disrupt” the climate, so to speak.

“Climate disruption” obviously isn’t perfect. The diction is still somewhat pretentious. However, I think a bit of pretentiousness in this case isn’t all bad since we still want things to sound somewhat scientific. Moreover, the phrase makes things sound bad without being alarmist. Overall, I think it’s much better than what we’re using now.

What I want to do is convince other people (preferably famous, but I need you too!) to use “climate disruption.” Please use “climate disruption” from now on and convince everyone you know to use it. Words matter.

EDIT: I should devise a pithier version of this entry when I e-mail others.

Memorial Day

Perhaps we should do more than remember heroism on this day, Memorial Day. We should remember barbarism and brutality. Because that’s what war entails, does it not? War is people killing other people. To call our dead soldiers “fallen” is to gloss over the brutality inherent to war. To be killed by an IED may mean one’s insides were ripped apart by a bomb’s shrapnel. Remembering our dead this way is not pleasant. I’d rather not try to conjure up this type of imagery. Most people definitely won’t. But I think we should.

We must remember the brutality, lest we become too casual towards war. Haha, wait, what am I saying? No, we already have become too casual towards war, otherwise we wouldn’t have so eagerly invaded Iraq. War should always be a last resort, especially in this modern age. Humans have been far too creative in inventing ways to kill each other for war to be declared this easily.

Part of the problem is that the burden isn’t really the nation’s burden. We have an all-volunteer army instead of a true citizens army. Most people just aren’t connected to the war. This is especially true for most of the politicians.

We definitely made a mistake in switching over to the all-volunteer army. It has disconnected us from the reality of war. The mistake that was the invasion of Iraq is, in part, a problem with the system. To prevent another Iraq, we must fix the system.

[I apologize for how poorly written this is. I’m still trying to get back into weblogging.]

Fluffy Filler Nonsense

(Note: I just read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, so I’ve been examining other people’s words more closely.)

Here’s a fun sentence sample from the front page of “Wanting to maintain a role as engines of social mobility, about two dozen elite schools have pushed in the past few years to diversify economically.”

Ew. Is it just me, or is that sentence ugly? Who the hell put “diversify economically” together? That sounds like something you do to an investment portfolio, not to students.

A few remarks on “engines of social mobility”: First of all, universities are pretty much the opposite of engines of social mobility. They’re starting to do a pretty good job separating the haves from the have-nots.

Secondly, the word “engine” should evoke imagery of a “driving force.” Here’s how Encarta defines “engine” in this context:

driving force or energy source: something that supplies the driving force or energy to a movement, system, or trend

The extra layers of words take away from this energy. The schools aren’t actually engines of social mobility; it says they want “to maintain a role as engines of social mobility.” Where the hell’s the engine? To me, the phrasing (especially “role”) implies that college contribute to social mobility; not that they a driving force.

Luckily, the headline told us all we needed to know: “Elite Colleges Open New Door to Low-Income Youths.”

Bravo. Check out that juxtaposition. Now we see the sample sentence for what it really is: fluff.

This also reminds me of “affirmative action.” What the hell does that even mean? But I’ll save the critique of PC language in college for later.

One more thing to write about: The language of climate change.