Friday, January 04, 2002

The Great American Umbrage Machine Some months ago on Usenet, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Kevin Maroney, Martin Wisse, and I discussed an article by Jonathan Rauch in the April 2001 edition of the New Republic. (Go a-googling an' if ye wish for the thread, Usenet is like blog-space, but faster). Rauch was writing about the ubiquity and power of the 'unwritten rules': the net set of uncodified rules for thinking, interaction, opinion, and arbitration. Rauch explained,

Such tacit codes are most conspicuous in the economic sphere, where they avert or settle property disputes, and in the honor codes that allocate communal duties (for instance, serving on a condominium board). Coexisting with those are what you might call "Main Street Codes"--the rules governing how "decent" people behave in a civic context. ("Decent" people help the cops, welcome new neighbors, don't let their lawns or kids run wild.) Then there are the much less talked-about, but no less important, "Old Wives' Rules" that regulate conduct at a more personal level. Written on the bones of every hausfrau or yenta, these rules--such as the requirement that a man marry a woman if he gets her pregnant--are the main regulators of love and romance.

Underlying all of those are the craftily balanced regimes of hypocrisy that dissolve the most insoluble conflicts, the issues of deepest moral disagreement: what I call Hidden Law. "Law" because these codes are as widely observed as rules in a statute book; "Hidden" because to make them work people must often pretend they don't exist. The trick with Hidden Law is to make social bargains whose terms include an agreement to deny that there is any such bargain.

A prim and proper answer to this earth-shaking revelation is, essentially, 'duh'. But hold the 'duh' back for a second: it's a powerful point. We live in a rational and varied culture of laws, leading us to the assumption that the explicit boundaries of permissible action are those contained in the laws. Stupid us. It's never that free, and never so simple. In the referenced piece, Kinsley described the 300lb boa constriction of discourse squeezing the cognoscenti since the eleventh of September: the desire not to piss the majority off, and the fear of being publically humiliated for saying stupid things. Pundits are little Enrons in the fungible marketplace of current-events interpretation. Interpreters of the news, political trends, and advocates of particular political ideologies, their currency is audience. Say something "interesting" in collision with the overwhelming trend of public discourse, and voila, presto chango the credibility of $pundit approaches the null set. Not because of some vast conspiracy, mind you, but because once a rhetorical consensus is reached, it is not fragile, and it is the audience rejecting the pundit*, not the reverse. This is a bad thing, because self-censorship reaches further than the official bureacratic brand of censorship. Kinsley is right: What gets suppressed when you're watching what you say is not formal political dissent or important revelations about government malfeasance. Those things you say with care in any event. It's the lesser criticisms of our government and our leaders, the odd speculative comment that you're not even sure of yourself, the joke that may fall flat. But these are important too. My New Year's resolution for 2002 is to stop listening to my Inner Ashcroft and to be less careful about what I say. How about you? * Love the OED - here's its etymology of 'pundit': a. A learned Hindu; one versed in Sanskrit and in the philosophy, religion, and jurisprudence of India. b. A learned expert or teacher. 1816 ‘QUIZ’ Grand Master III. 73 For English pundets condescend Th' observatory to ascend. 1862 Sat. Rev. 15 Mar. 296 A point upon which the doctors of etiquette and the pundits of refinement will differ. 1896 SAINTSBURY Hist. 19th Cent. Lit. v. 213 honoured pundit and champion of the Whig party. 1924 C. E. MONTAGUE Right Place xiv. 222 To say things and try to believe them, just because some aesthetic pundit or critical mandarin has said them before. 1938 R. HUGHES In Hazard ii. 37 First, this was developing into a true hurricane; and, second, it was not at all where it was thought by the pundits to be. 1941 C. H. WADDINGTON Scientific Attitude iv. 51 The architect who wished to build for a scientific and sceptical age had to..find out what was left when scepticism had done its worst. The pundits would say that nothing was left. 1957 Listener 5 Sept. 338/1 The British holding its 119th annual meeting... The pundits have gathered at Dublin. 1976 Times 30 Sept. 8/7 Though frowned upon by some pundits as out-of-date and middle-class, Swallows and Amazons and its many sequels remain immensely popular with children. 1977 J. I. M. STEWART Madonna of Astrolabe iii. 51 Here is what some pundit calls the phantom aesthetic state.

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