Jan 312003

Jim Ryan stands up for “he” as the universal antecedent. Cinderella learnedly notes how vastly the status of women in Iran has been improved by the fact that Persian possesses a unisex substitute. Jacques Barzun, in the magisterial From Dawn to Decadence, has the absolutely last word on the subject:

[I]t is unwise to give up a long-established practice, familiar to all, without reviewing the purpose it has served. In Genesis we read: “And God created Man, male and female.” Plainly, in 1611, and long before, man meant human being. For centuries zoologists have spoken of the species Man; “Man inhabits all the climactic zones.” Logicians have said “Man is mortal,” and philosophers have boasted of “Man’s unconquerable mind.” The poet Webster writes: “And man does flourish but his time.” In all these uses man cannot possibly mean male only. The coupling of woman to those statements would add nothing and sound absurd. The word man has, like many others, two related meanings, which context makes clear.

Nor is the inclusive sense of human being an arbitrary convention. The Sanskrit root of man, manu, denotes nothing but the human being and does so par excellence, since it is cognate with the word for “I think.” In the compounds that have been regarded as invidious — spokesman, chairman, and the like — man retains that original sense of human being, as is proved by the word woman, which is etymologically “wife-human being.” The wo (shortened from waef) ought to make woman doubly unacceptable to zealots, but the word as it stands seems irreplaceable. In a like manner, the proper name Carman is made up of car, which meant male, and man, which has its usual human being application…

In English, words denoting human beings of various ages and occupations have changed sex over time or lost it altogether. Thus at first girl referred to small children of either sex, likewise maid, which meant simply “grown-up,” and the ending -ster, as in spinster and webster, designated women. It is no longer so in gangster and roadster. Implications have shifted too. In Latin, homo was the human being and vir the male, so that virtue meant courage in battle; in English it long stood for chastity in women. The message of this mixed-up past is that it is best to let alone what one understands quite well and not insist on a one-sided interpretation of a word in common use.

…To repeat at frequent intervals “man and woman” and follow it with the compulsory “his and her” is clumsy. It destroys sentence rhythm and smoothness, besides creating emphasis where it is not wanted. Where man is most often used, it is the quick neutral word that good prose requires. It is unfortunate that English no longer has a special term for the job like the French on. But on is only the slimmed-down form of hom(me) — man again.

…The truth is that any sex-conscious practice defeats itself by sidetracking the thought from the matter in hand to a social issue — an important one, without question. And on that issue, it is hardly plausible to think that tinkering with words will do anything to enhance respect for women among people who do not feel any, or increase women’s authority and earnings in places where prejudice is entrenched.

Any questions?

(Update: Dean Esmay comments. At length.)

Jan 292003

Goodwin Liu has exposed, in the Washington Post and at greater length in the forthcoming Michigan Law Review, a flaw in the thinking of affirmative action opponents that he calls the “causation fallacy.”

Affirmative action is widely thought to be unfair because it benefits minority applicants at the expense of more deserving whites. Yet this perception tends to inflate the cost beyond its real proportions. While it is true that affirmative action gives minority applicants a significant boost in selective admissions, it is not true that most white applicants would fare better if elite schools eliminated the practice. Understanding why is crucial to separating fact from fiction in the national debate over affirmative action…

…Allan Bakke, a rejected white applicant who won admission in 1978 to the University of California at Davis’s medical school after convincing the high court that the school’s policy of reserving 16 of 100 seats each year for minority students was unconstitutional. For many Americans, the success of Bakke’s lawsuit has long highlighted what is unfair about affirmative action: Giving minority applicants a significant advantage causes deserving white applicants to lose out. But to draw such an inference in Bakke’s case — or in the case of the vast majority of rejected white applicants — is to indulge in what I call “the causation fallacy.”

This is a “fallacy,” according to Liu, because the vast majority of rejected white applicants would still be rejected, even without affirmative action. This fallacy works in mysterious ways. The lower the standards for black applicants, the more rejected whites clear the bar. The more rejected whites with better credentials than accepted blacks, the less certain it is that any particular white would have been admitted if there were no affirmative action. It follows, from Liu’s logic, that the lower the standards for blacks as opposed to whites, the less cause for whites to complain!

Liu makes a big deal of the fact that Gratz and Bakke very likely wouldn’t have been admitted regardless, and in any case couldn’t be sure. He then publishes the following table, of admissions rates at “five highly selective universities” (this is thanks to Ampersand, who takes it from Liu’s full Law Review article, which I haven’t read and isn’t yet online):

SAT score
< 1000
Black rate
White rate
Rate w/o AA

One wonders, first, what the raw numbers are. They would be easy to include and would prove instructive. (The nice round numbers in the upper rows in the black column make me suspect that we are dealing with a vanishingly small sample size.) It is fishy that the percentages of whites admitted in the upper percentiles declines without affirmative action. Ampersand comments that “[a] white student with a combined score below 1000 has a 96.7% chance of rejection from a selective school with affirmative action, and a 93.3% chance of rejection if aa didn’t exist. In either case, the odds are overwhelming she’ll be rejected; and the primary reason for the rejection is her poor SATs, not her race.” An opponent of affirmative action might retort that whites with such scores would have twice as good a chance at admission. This is a fine example of how to lie with statistics.

But the overwhelming question about this data is, how does he know? If Bakke and Gratz can’t prove that they would have been admitted in the absence of affirmative action, how can Liu establish the SAT distribution in its absence?

Ampersand also notes how whiny the AA plaintiffs are:

Anti-affirmative action lawsuits are not put forward by whites who would have gotten in to a selective college if only affirmative action didn’t exist. They’re put forward by whites who have such a strong sense of entitlement that they can’t admit they failed to gain admission because, on the merits, they didn’t deserve admission.

Well maybe, but Gratz and Bakke are paragons of virtue compared to Miranda, Escobedo, Gideon, and other plaintiffs in famous Constitutional cases. Spy magazine once ran a little story profiling such plaintiffs called “Dirtball Heroes of the Constitution,” and there isn’t an AA plaintiff who would even come close to qualifying. In any case, aren’t you supposed to take the plaintiff as you find him?

This whole business of percentages disguises the fundamental fact that for every black applicant who is admitted because of affirmative action there is a white applicant who is rejected for the same reason. We may not know which white applicant, but that fact is immaterial. Liu suggests “rethinking the conventional view that a race-conscious admissions policy pits whites against minorities in a zero-sum game,” but a zero-sum game is precisely what it is, and what it has to be.

Jan 282003

Popular, Popular, Unpopular!
‘You’re no Poet’ — the critics cried!
‘Why?’ said the Poet. ‘You’re unpopular!’
Then they cried at the turn of the tide —
‘You’re no Poet!’ ‘Why?’ ‘You’re popular!’
Pop-gun, Popular and Unpopular!

–Alfred Tennyson

Alexandra of Out of Lascaux has sinned. Her sin was to defend Thomas Kinkade, the twinkly light guy, modestly, because she thinks some of his paintings are pretty good. (It looks like kitsch to me but I’ve never been close enough to one to say for sure.) This is too much for the reliably “elitist” AC Douglas:

So let’s hear it for Thomas Kinkade, Stephen King, Andrew Lloyd Weber, George Lucas, Williamsburg VA, and Reality TV! They are hallmarks of our populist age after all, and so not to be despised.

Oh yes let’s. I pause to note that capitalism does such a nice job of gratifying my own desires that I am even willing to forgive it for gratifying everyone else’s. But there is a still more obvious point to belabor. Nobody, certainly not Alexandra, seriously defends some work of art on the grounds that it is popular. The argument has always been between people who think some popular art is good, and people who think no popular art is good, and the second party has some explaining to do. (Shakespeare, Mozart, Dickens, Rodin, Frost, to pick four different centuries and five different fields.) Kinkade might be good, or bad, but his popularity surely does not bear on the question.

The “elitists” waste their ammunition deriding popular taste when what they ought to be doing is defending objective standards in art. Reordering established reputations, resurrecting a neglected work and explaining why it’s superior to something better known, differentiating between good and bad on some grounds other than “I prefer it” — this is useful and, I daresay, “elitist” work. It beats bloviating. On the other hand it’s much harder.

(Update: AC Douglas responds. I am amused to be called a multi-culturalist for suggesting that if one dislikes Thomas Kinkade one ought to adduce some reasons beyond his popularity. Popular art, if good, is apparently not really popular, because the many people who appreciate it fail to do so at the level at which it ought, properly, to be appreciated. It’s a neat trick, to be able to speculate unerringly on the inner life of one’s fellows. Where do I sign up for the course?)

(Another: Lynn Sislo comments. So does Ian Hamet. And AC himself, who always gets the last word, replies to my reply.)

Jan 272003

Part I: Statement in Poetry
Part II: External Evidence
Part IV: Public and Private Reading
Part V: Tenor and Vehicle
Part VI: Practice

Consider the following two lines of verse. The first is from John Dowland’s songbook and was written in the late 16th century. The second is from Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” and was written in the early 20th.

Fine knacks for ladies — cheap, choice, brave and new!

The world is like wide water, without sound.

In rhythm they could hardly be less alike. The first is choppy: it sounds like the spiel of a carnival barker. The second is as calm as the water it describes. However, they are metrically identical. They are both perfectly regular lines of iambic pentameter.

They sound so different because rhythm is not meter. Meter is the arithmetic norm, the background. It’s like a time signature in music. One of the odd things about poetry is that it is a simple, easily recognizable meter that makes possible complex rhythmic effects. Syllable length, strength of accent, placement of caesura all make individual lines of poetry move differently, yet no meaningful variation is possible without underlying regularity.

In scansion, whether a syllable is accented depends not merely on the amount of emphasis it receives but on its place in the line and the line’s place in the poem. In this famous line from Ben Jonson

Drink to me only with thine eyes

the last four syllables are accented progressively more heavily; yet in the context of the line, and the poem, which is iambic tetrameter, “with” is accented and “thine” unaccented. Long syllables are also often unaccented. In the above line the longest syllables in the line are the first and the seventh, and neither is accented.

The major difference between the lines from Stevens and Dowland is in the strength of the accents. Stevens’ line sounds calm and regular because all of the accented syllables are longer, and receive more emphasis, than all of the unaccented ones. In Dowland, neither is true, and the effect is radically different.

Nearly all pentameter lines have a caesura, or a natural pause, because most humans cannot speak ten syllables without drawing breath. In the Dowland line the caesura is at the dash, after “ladies”; it’s a long pause that absolutely cleaves the line. In the Stevens line there are actually two short caesuras, one after “world” and the other after “water.” Its continuity, its wateriness, is emphasized.

One can also vary the meter itself; not every iambic pentameter line must contain five perfect iambs. But most rhythmic variation is achieved by other means, and poets who complain that a rigid meter like iambic pentameter is too confining have probably not seriously investigated its possibilities. Even poets who employ traditional meters sometimes make the same mistake. When Michael Snider, who advocates traditional meters, says, “using traditional meters means I don’t have to teach my readers how to hear the rhythms of my poems,” he confuses meter with rhythm and gets the case exactly backwards. The simpler and more obvious the meter, the subtler the rhythmic effects that are possible against it — the more your readers have to learn.

Here are the caesuras in our Hardy poem, longer pauses marked with a double slash:

My spirit / will not haunt the mound
Above my breast, //
But travel, // memory-possessed,/
To where my tremulous being found
Life largest, // best.

My phantom-footed shape will go, //
When nightfall grays, /
Hither and thither / along the ways
I and another / used to know
In / backward days.

And there you’ll find me, / if a jot
You still should care
For me, / and for my curious air; //
If otherwise, then I shall not, //
For you, // be there.

Each stanza ends with a four-syllable line, with a caesura in each: first after the third syllable, next after the first, and last in the middle, resolving the other two the way a note resolves a chord.

The metrical scheme is perfectly iambic, with three exceptions, all worth noting. Each of the poet’s two self-descriptions, “tremulous being” at line 4 and “curious air” at line 13, contains an extra unaccented syllable, which ties them together. The back-and-forth of “hither and thither” is beautifully conveyed by the inversion of the first foot in the line. It’s easy to overanalyze this sort of thing, but Hardy is one of the finest metrists in English, and I am certain that he heard these effects, even if he didn’t stoop to analyze how he produced them.

All of these effects can be traced back to meter, the one thing that distinguishes poetry from prose. Even free verse has meter, which is to say it’s not really “free” at all. The scansion of free verse is a large subject that I will save for another day, but here’s a heuristic: the one thing that free verse cannot be is iambic, because that’s what ordinary speech is. Loosely iambic free verse inevitably tightens up into blank verse, or devolves into prose. Almost all bad free verse contains large undigested chunks of iambs, like lumps in the mashed potatoes. If you find them, you’re not reading poetry. You’re reading prose broken up at odd places on the page.

Jan 232003

Philosoblogger Jim discusses slippery slopes today:

It is obviously an unjust society that lets cripples and children die of starvation and exposure. I don’t see how that is a misuse of the term “unjust” in ordinary usage. (I’m not arguing all of the unfortunate can be helped, that’s Paul Wellstone-ism, not my view.

No one has ever shown that the slippery slope to socialism exists. You can imagine slippery slopes anywhere. “One drink, and you’ll inevitably become an alcoholic.” “Give the state the power to imprison citizens, and it will eventually imprison people arbitrarily, en masse, with no justification.” America doesn’t let cripples die, and it still isn’t socialist. We use reason and debate to stop ourselves from slipping.

The argument is certainly not respectable as he puts it. In my family we used to call it The Fatal Glass of Beer Theory, after a W.C. Fields short whose plot you can imagine. It is easy to do something in moderation; people, and even governments, manage it all the time.

Slippery slope theorists, however, rarely make the argument in this bald form, and if they do it isn’t really what they mean. They are asking for a principle, an intellectualy tenable distinction, something beyond “less” and “more.” One can drink so long as it doesn’t seriously impair one’s ability to function. The state can imprison people so long as they have violated the rights of others. The state can seize assets from its citizens to keep cripples from dying so long as — well, this time it’s not so simple. To ask for a distinction between seizing assets to help some of the unfortunate a little and seizing them to help all of the unfortunate a lot — between Jim’s position and “Wellstone-ism” — seems to me a perfectly respectable demand.

(Update: Jim answers.)

(Another: Eugene Volokh has posted a draft of his forthcoming Harvard Law Review article on this very subject.)