Vocabulary loss and the narrowing of understanding

My blog posts get a “D” for readability as graded by this web site, because my sentences are too long and the vocabulary I use is too advanced. Turns out I am writing at a college level, and that is, according to this article, a cause for alarm. According to the site, I’m limiting my readership.

I ran my blog posts through this analysis after ending up on an article about how the most successful writers–by successful they mean getting on a best-seller list–write for an audience reading at an elementary or middle school level. The author claims that Cormac McCarthy–Cormac McCarthy!–writes at an 8th grade level. If you’ve read McCarthy–a great favorite of mine–you’ll know that he demands a lot from his readers. He writes long, complex sentences, employing odd structures, repetitions, sentence fragments, and a strange, almost Biblical language. He uses a rarefied vocabulary, pushing words to the limits of their sense. I don’t think I’d’ve had an easy time reading him in 8th grade. I didn’t believe this result, so I grabbed this passage from Blood Meridian I had laying around and ran it through the same test.

“He watched the fire and if he saw portents there it was much the same to him. He would live to look upon the western sea and he was equal to whatever might follow for he was complete at every hour. Whether his history should run concomitant with men and nations, whether it should cease. He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are ever given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.”

Have you ever heard the word “endarkenment” before? Me neither. Looks invented. Far from being at an 8th grade level, the Flesch Kincaid Grade Level analysis put Blood Meridian–at least this passage–at grade level 14.6, requiring around 2.5 years of college to be easily understood. Here are the scores:

 

I felt vindicated. Would you rather write like the article was suggesting? In order to “succeed” should we dumb down our blog posts? We should not.

I had been raised with the idea that having an extensive vocabulary meant expanding your understanding of yourself, other people and the world, an idea similar to this exhortation from Joseph Brodsky’s commencement address at the University of Michigan in 1988, which I read in his collection of essays, On Grief and Reason:

“Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bedroom eloquence or your professional success — although those, too, can be consequences — nor is it to turn you into parlor sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to articulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neurosis. On a daily basis, a lot is happening to one’s psyche; the mode of one’s expression, however, often remains the same. Articulation lags behind experience. That doesn’t go well with the psyche. Sentiments, nuances, thoughts, perceptions that remain nameless, unable to be voiced and dissatisfied with approximations, get pent up within an individual and may lead to a psychological explosion or implosion. To avoid that, one needn’t turn into a bookworm. One should simply acquire a dictionary and read it on the same daily basis — and, on and off, with books of poetry. Dictionaries, however, are of primary importance. There are a lot of them around; some of them even come with a magnifying glass. They are reasonably cheap, but even the most expensive among them (those equipped with a magnifying glass) cost far less than a single visit to a psychiatrist. If you are going to visit one nevertheless, go with the symptoms of a dictionary junkie.”

Exhibit B, from economist, libertarian and autodidact Henry Hazlitt, in Thinking as a Science (via Jyri Engestrom):

“A man with a scant vocabulary will almost certainly be a weak thinker. The richer and more copious one’s vocabulary and the greater one’s awareness of fine distinctions and subtle nuances of meaning, the more fertile and precise is likely to be one’s thinking. Knowledge of things and knowledge of the words for them grows together. If you do not know the words, you can hardly know the thing.”

The desperate state of public discourse today is partly due to the lack of words, the poverty of expression, the limited vocabulary that keeps us from understanding and communicating with one another.

 

Racial Injustice & the Bill of Rights

In this time of  Black Lives Matter, and after the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, I wanted to go back and find this post I wrote in 2012 about how the Constitution and the Bill of Rights contribute to the discrimination and abuse of black men and women, so entrenched in America history, with no signs of abating.

I had been reading about the work of the late William J. Stuntz, a law professor at Harvard, who dedicated his life to studying the roots of racial discrimination in America’s criminal justice system. He was a conservative. Upon his death an obituary in the Nation said: “Widely acknowledged as the leading criminal procedure scholar of his era, Stuntz defied easy labeling. He was a conservative and an evangelical Christian whose preoccupation with race and mercy allied him with liberals, and whose insights were contrarian and often quite radical.” His solutions to the inequities of the criminal justice system had two parts: making trials local, and basing justice on principles rather than procedure. 

The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (Stunt’s book) asks what went wrong and how it can be put to rights. Stuntz covers much ground and floats many reforms, but his answer is two-pronged. The first part of it is structural: “local democracy” must be restored to the criminal justice system by reducing plea bargaining and holding more jury trials—and the jurors must live in the same communities as the victims and the accused.

The second part of Stuntz’s answer is technical: he argues that we must turn away from the law of criminal procedure—broadly speaking, the guarantees of the Bill of Rights like the right to counsel and the freedom from unlawful search and seizure—and toward the substantive law of equal protection, which the Supreme Court left for dead during Reconstruction. The former proposal is an arresting insight that seems broadly correct and broadly unobjectionable (except to prosecutors). The latter is as provocative as anything you will read from a serious legal commentator, and raises many problems. Both proposals will be probed and tested by scholars for years.”

Stuntz looked for the underlying reasons why we arrived at this impasse in America, how we are still, in 2011 when he wrote his book, seeing the unending injustice towards black people, finding it, ultimately, in the Constitution, and particularly in the Bill of Rights. I was hard struck by how right he was in what was wrong. The problem, as he sees it, is that the Bill of Rights is about process and procedure, rather than principles. Compare, he says, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen with our Bill of Rights—Bills 4-8 establish our judicial system, and are how we end up with more black men in prison than were slaves in 1850, and more than six million people under “correctional supervision”. It’s appalling.

Adam Gopnik writes

The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles—no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done—it talks procedurally. You can’t search someone without a reason; you can’t accuse him without allowing him to see the evidence; and so on. This emphasis, Stuntz thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice…You can show a problem with your appointed defender, but it is much harder if there is merely enormous accumulated evidence that you weren’t guilty in the first place and the jury got it wrong.


I’d always been uneasy with the over-valorization of the Constitution, and felt there was something off about the Bill of Rights, and certainly have always felt that the justice system rarely dispenses justice, but more often perpetuates the prejudices and privileges already existing in society rather than overcoming them–but I didn’t have the least idea why it was so bad. This is why.

Also from Stuntz: The Pathological Politics of Criminal Law

Finland’s “National Happiness” shouldn’t mean “Move to Finland”

Header_countryside_red_house_cottage-1024x580.jpgThese headlines are stupid and I get annoyed with them every year:

Unhappy? Move to Finland

Want to be happy? Try Moving to Finland

The annual “national happiness” index came out again, and as usual, Finland and the other Nordic countries top the list. So we see these inane headlines again, recommending that people MOVE to Finland (or Denmark or Iceland or Norway). Yes there are many marvelous things about Finland–saunas, pulla, endless lakes, little red wooden houses, hedgehogs and a love of nature. But rather than move, agitate for the Nordic model at home and follow the recipe for national happiness.

What National Happiness means is that most people in Finland have enough to eat, are clothed and housed, have national daycare, a good education and national healthcare.  That is what it means. Finland also has one of the lowest rates of immigration among the Nordic countries– only 5.8% of their population in 2015 was foreign-born, and most of those immigrants were from Russia or Estonia. Moving to Finland wouldn’t be easy, nor would it make any change to the average person’s happiness, that is, if they have food, clothing, shelter, work and healthcare. But what Finland has–and this is significant– is the happiest (safest, healthiest, best cared for) POOR people in the world.

So don’t move to Finland unless you’re eager to embrace 7 months of winter! Instead, agitate for national healthcare, universally good schools, and a social safety net that catches all who fall.


A witty, informative, and popular travelogue about the Scandinavian countries and how they may not be as happy or as perfect as we assume, “The Almost Nearly Perfect People offers up the ideal mixture of intriguing and revealing facts” (Laura Miller, Salon).

Thwarting the Supermajority

Thwarting the Supermajority

Tim Wu points out in his article The Oppression of the Supermajority that the much-vaunted political divides in this country are fictitious and that the country is largely unified. In fact what is happening is that the Supermajority of voters who agree on a large slate of issues are being thwarted by their own government. He writes:

The defining political fact of our time is not polarization. It’s the inability of even large bipartisan majorities to get what they want on issues like these. Call it the oppression of the supermajority.

He puts together a short list of some of the issues we agree upon, which

“About 75 percent of Americans favor higher taxes for the ultrawealthy. The idea of a federal law that would guarantee paid maternity leave attracts 67 percent support. Eighty-three percent favor strong net neutrality rules for broadband, and more than 60 percent want stronger privacy laws. Seventy-one percent think we should be able to buy drugs imported from Canada, and 92 percent want Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices. The list goes on.”

What’s causing this? Wu believes it is legislative stagnation, the gridlock created by industry groups, donor interests and the commitment of our elected leaders to preserving this gridlock.


Read some of Tim’s Books:

The Attention Merchants:

“From Tim Wu, author of the award-winning The Master Switch ( a New Yorker and Fortune Book of the Year) and who coined the term “net neutrality”—a revelatory, ambitious and urgent account of how the capture and re-sale of human attention became the defining industry of our time. 

 

The Curse of Bigness

From the man who coined the term “net neutrality,” author of The Master Switch and The Attention Merchants, comes a warning about the dangers of excessive corporate and industrial concentration for our economic and political future.”

The Social Media Transformation of César Sayoc: I disagree

In today’s New York Times, I find an article tracing the evolution of the Trump Supporter’s campaign to kill Democrats from his “normal” Facebook posts, to his “extremist” Twitter account. The article begins:

Until 2016, Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr.’s life on social media looked unremarkable. On his Facebook page, he posted photos of decadent meals, gym workouts, scantily clad women and sports games — the stereotypical trappings of middle-age masculinity.

This may be common, but it is far from “unremarkable” as reporter Kevin Roose states.  I remarked many things about it. Then a quote from an expert in digital journalism:

“He went from posting pictures of women, real estate, dining and cars to posting pictures of ISIS, guns and people in jail,” said Jonathan Albright, the research director for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “It’s a remarkable change.”

From unremarkable to remarkable. However, here is what I remarked in the first incarnation of Mr. Sayoc’s online persona.  “Scantily clad women” denotes objectification; women as things, not people; decadent meals signal affluence and pleasure; real estate and cars are signs of prestige, money and power. All of these are signs of toxic masculinity, an idea of human relationships as transactional and impersonal, a technocratic bent, and a desire for male domination. These are completely consistent with the Twitter account, the support of Trump, and, eventually, the pipe bombs.

I’d suggest the proper way to frame this article is as a continuum of his offenses, displayed on social media. Just as many mass killers begin with domestic violence, many perverts as peeping toms; just as sexual harassers will forge expense reports, or take credit for other people’s work, the signs of violence are often visible in other actions and evidenced in seemingly minor social media posts online. “Criminal versatility” is common, and criminal tendencies can be read in early prejudices. I see the signs of César Sayoc’s tendencies already writ large on his Facebook page.

“Put a king over us”

The people came to Samuel and said, “Put a king over us, to guide us.”

 

Samuel  said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.  Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

 

But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.  Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

 

When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

1 Samuel 8

What happened in the 70s?

Jyri posted an article on Facebook, Where Inequality Took Root: “In the mid-70’s, we traded in our post-World War II social contract for a new one, where ‘greed is good.'”  This amazing graph shows something big happened in the 1970s to prevent workers from sharing the gains of productivity in the workplace, but the question is, what?

productivity-versus-wages

Jyri conjectures that personal computing may have had something to do with the changes.However, I think that was a small part of the changes going on in the United States at the time. The bigger changes were social.

There was a great deal of change during the 70s in terms of womens’ rights, gay rights, civil rights and also, significantly, immigration. For example, after Hart-Celler was passed, the ethnic makeup of the U.S. changed dramatically, viz, this data from Wikipedia:

“Prior to 1965, the demographics of immigration stood as mostly Europeans; 68 percent of legal immigrants in the 1950s came from Europe and Canada. However, in the years 1971–1991, immigrants from Hispanic and Latin American countries made 47.9 percent of immigrants (with Mexico accounting for 23.7 percent) and immigrants from Asia 35.2 percent. Not only did it change the ethnic makeup of immigration, but it also greatly increased the number of immigrants—immigration constituted 11 percent of the total U.S. population growth between 1960 and 1970, growing to 33 percent from 1970–80, and to 39 percent from 1980–90.”

My mother’s family immigrated from the Philippines to the United States when people from non-European countries were subjected to more stringent requirements than Europeans, and very few were allowed in. They believe they were admitted to the U.S., for example, because they had had a great deal of higher education, and graduate degrees from American universities.

The graph above can tell a thousand stories, and it is hard to point to any single factor. Personal computing may have changed the workplace dramatically, but I think it is likely that the social contract changed because the social construct changed. More women, more minorities, more foreign-born citizens were taking their places in American society and there was a growing sense of threat to entrenched power.

Trump voters aren’t voting policy, they’re voting identity

We’ve been reading so many words about who the Trump voter is and why they vote the way they do. So many explanations. But this is the first article that made sense to me, and it tells how people are voting more for who they “identify” with, who they feel represents them, and people like them than for any particular issue or policy. It is an interview with Katherine J. Cramer about her book The Politics of Resentment. Here is part of the interview:

…we all do that thing of encountering information and interpreting it in a way that supports our own predispositions. Recent studies in political science have shown that it’s actually those of us who think of ourselves as the most politically sophisticated, the most educated, who do it more than others.

So I really resist this characterization of Trump supporters as ignorant.

There’s just more and more of a recognition that politics for people is not — and this is going to sound awful, but — it’s not about facts and policies. It’s so much about identities, people forming ideas about the kind of person they are and the kind of people others are. Who am I for, and who am I against?

Policy is part of that, but policy is not the driver of these judgments. There are assessments of, is this someone like me? Is this someone who gets someone like me?

I think all too often, we put our energies into figuring out where people stand on particular policies. I think putting energy into trying to understanding they way they view the world and their place in it — that gets us so much further toward understanding how they’re going to vote, or which candidates are going to be appealing to them.

Remember the Story of Guillermo Rodriguez

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On Aug. 19, 2015, shortly after midnight, the brothers Stephen and Scott Leader assaulted Guillermo Rodriguez. Rodriguez had been sleeping near a train station in Boston. The Leader brothers beat him with a metal pipe, breaking his nose and bruising his ribs, and called him a “wetback.” They urinated on him. “All these illegals need to be deported,” they are said to have declared during the attack. The brothers were fans of the candidate who would go on to win the Republican party’s presidential nomination. Told of the incident at the time, that candidate said: “People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country, and they want this country to be great again.”

– Teju Cole, A Time for Refusal

Act Now, Electoral College

Stopping demagogues and unqualified candidates is why the Electoral College was created. Time to reread The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton. Jon Zieger paraphrases and explains:

The intention of the electoral college is to protect us from interference in our elections by foreign powers and from unqualified candidates who rise up quickly based on “little arts in popularity”;  to stop “foreign powers… gain[ing] an improper ascendant in our councils… by raising a creature of their own to the [Presidency].” its purpose is to “afford a moral certainty that [POTUS] … will never fall to any man not in eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications as a majority of votes might not … happen [go to] one man, and as it might be unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive…it provides that, in such a contingency, the House of Representatives shall select the man who … may be best qualified”

And he concludes:

If there were ever a case for individual electors to exercise judgment independent of their state populations, this is it. And doing so would be consistent with both the constitution and the intention of the system as expressed by the framers.

Yes.

21 States do not restrict their Electors. There is already unrest: Texas elector has said he couldn’t support Trump.