Nevil Shute’s multiple vote: Would it do any good?

Last month Noah Millman linked to Damian Linker’s overblown argument that the modern Republican Party is actively plotting to disenfranchise the poor. To Linker, a liberal, it goes without saying that this supposed plot, if successful, would have monstrous results. Millman, judicious as always, took a moment to analyze what those monstrous results would actually be.

Millman summarizes two “Randite arguments” he claims to hear on the right for excluding non-taxpayers from the franchise – both of which he goes on to dismiss as “transparently absurd”.

The first argument, as he puts it, is “that it’s unfair for one’s representation to be less than proportional to one’s contribution (therefore people who don’t pay income taxes should not be allowed to vote).”

The second is “that it’s dangerous to give power to the unpropertied (because they don’t have a sufficient stake in stable property rights that promote productive enterprise).”

Having done a bit of browsing on the kind of websites where such sentiments are current, I suspect Millman has phrased these specimens of the “two most common forms” of right-wing anti-democratic thinking in a manner that makes them easier for him to undermine. Even so, I’m not sure he quite does the job.

Taking the points out of order, Millman’s criticism of Randite argument #2 is that we should “read [our] Livy”, and “take a look at the history of Latin America”, to see what chaos can result from entrenching the division between rich and poor. I’m sure Millman knows far more about both those subjects than I do, but in any case it seems obvious that there are a lot of intermediate steps between 21st century America and, say, the late Roman Republic; to argue that we may have extended voting rights a shade too far is not to say they must be rolled back to the days of the Gracchi. We might wish to go only as far as that notorious Randite John Stuart Mill, who conceded in an 1861 treatise in favour of universal suffrage that:

It is important, that the assembly which votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected exclusively by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed. Those who pay no taxes, disposing by their votes of other people’s money, have every motive to be lavish and none to economize. [1]

On these grounds the compassionate anti-democrat might argue that, even if contracting the franchise does inevitably lead to some social instability, it will compensate by helping ensure the solvency of our institutions; the poor would be better off under a stingier but sounder government than they would be scrabbling in the ruins of a failed republic. (Obviously your receptivity to this argument depends on how much faith you have in the sustainability of the welfare state.)

As for Randite argument #1, the “transparently absurd” notion that representation should be “proportional to one’s contributions” to the state, all Millman really tries to prove is that such a change would be difficult to implement. Apart from taxpayers, any number of interest groups could argue that their non-monetary contributions gave them a moral claim to a greater say in government; Millman identifies soldiers, mothers, and the descendents of slaves as citizens who, whatever their contribution to the treasury, might justly make such a case. And on what principle would we adjudicate these competing interests?

But to say it would be difficult isn’t to say either that it’s impossible or that it shouldn’t be done. We’ve already demonstrated our ability to democratically negotiate various deviations from the ideal of one-person-one-vote. In both the United States and Canada, residents of rural and more remote districts usually have greater weight apportioned to their votes than those who live in urban or more central areas. For instance, the 170,000 residents of the riding of Brampton West, in suburban Toronto, elect as many Members of Parliament – one – as the 26,000 residents of Labrador, making the Labradorian vote roughly six and a half times as weighty as the West Bramptonian. Regardless of whether you think this is fair, few would argue that a parliament elected under such rules was illegitimate, much less that it was incapable of debating whether Labradorian and West Bramptonian votes should be made either more equal or still less so.

In short, there’s no reason a legislative body elected under existing voting rules couldn’t debate and vote on the merits of changing the rules to favour certain voters in subsequent elections. This is in fact what Nevil Shute imagined in his 1953 novel In The Wet.

The novel is set in the then-near future of the early 1980s, mainly in a post-World War III England that is exhausted, impoverished, and stifled by rationing and central planning – not unlike the post-WWII England with which Shute and his contemporary readers were familiar. The hero is an Australian pilot who lands the plum job of captaining the Queen’s personal airplane. In contrast to the mother country, Australia is vibrant, prosperous, and growing, conditions which the author attributes to its adoption some years earlier of a system of “multiple voting”. Citizens can acquire up to seven votes, in any combination, according to the following criteria:

  • The first vote is given to every citizen on reaching the age of 21.
  • The second vote is for university graduates and commissioned military officers.
  • The third vote is earned after living and working abroad for at least two years.
  • The fourth vote is for raising two children to the age of fourteen without divorcing.
  • The fifth vote is for earning at least £5000 in the year before the election. (This is a pretty elite-level income. A newly-built three-bedroom house, we are told, costs four or five thousand Australian pounds.)
  • The sixth vote is for officials in any of the recognized Christian churches.
  • The seventh vote is given only at the discretion of the monarch. (At the novel’s climax our hero, a “three-vote man”, saves the Queen’s life, earning the rare and prestigious seventh vote.)

Shute is a little fuzzy on how this cockeyed scheme managed to get implemented. Apparently it began in the state of Western Australia, which, the protagonist explains, “was always pretty Liberal” (in the Australian and European sense of pro-free-market). As to what happened next:

“Aw, look,” said David. “West Australia was walking away with everything. We got a totally different sort of politician when we got the multiple vote. Before that, when it was one man one vote, the politicians were all tub-thumping nonentities and union bosses. Sensible people didn’t stand for parliament, and if they stood they didn’t get in. When we got multiple voting we got a better class of politician altogether, people who got elected by sensible voters.” He paused. “Before that when a man got elected to the Legislative Assembly, he was an engine driver or a dock labourer, maybe. He got made a Minister and top man of a Government department. Well, he couldn’t do a thing. The civil servants had him all wrapped up, because he didn’t know anything.”

“And after the multiple voting came in, was it different?”

“My word,” said the Australian. “We got some real men in charge. Did the Civil Service catch a cold! Half of them were out on their ear within a year, and then West Australia started getting all the coal and all the industry away from New South Wales and Victoria. And then these chaps who had been running West Australia started to get into Canberra. In 1973, when the multiple vote came in for the whole country, sixty per cent of the Federal Cabinet were West Australians. It got so they were running every bloody thing.”

“Because they were better people?” asked the captain.

“That’s right.”

I’m not going to try defending this as a piece of writing. Much of In The Wet concerns the boring romance of the pilot and his English girlfriend. There’s a lot of long-distance flying. I think we’re supposed to be awed by descriptions of the futuristic aircraft in which the Queen travels from Canada to Australia with just one refueling stop on Christmas Island, but in this respect Shute was too prophetic for his own good; what once seemed fantastical is now mundane. The voting scheme is by default the most interesting thing about the novel. Luckily, it’s fairly central to the plot. At the end of the book, the Queen essentially blackmails the UK into adopting the multiple vote by threatening to relocate permanently to Australia.

I am, to put it mildly, unconvinced A) that Shute’s scheme would ever pass in the first place, and B) if it somehow did, that it would have anything like such a dramatic effect on the quality of our legislators. Shute, like most political commentators, believes that if “sensible” voters were in charge, they’d elect the kind of governments he happens to favour – in his case, pragmatic, pro-monarchist, moderately right-wing ones. Just like Thomas Frank, who is convinced that the Matter With Kansas is that its citizens don’t share his left-of-centre outlook, and Bryan Caplan, who believes the properly informed Rational Voter must necessarily adopt libertarian views like his, Shute assumes that where he  has convictions, his political foes have only prejudices; where he reasons dispassionately, they are swayed by cheap emotionalism; where he considers the common good, they selfishly pursue their own trivial fancies. [2]

I don’t hold a much higher opinion of the electorate than Frank or Caplan or Shute. But I can’t help noticing that intelligent, thoughtful, idealistic people (like, for instance, Frank and Caplan and Shute) manage to hold widely divergent opinions on every imaginable topic of contention. John Derbyshire in an article somewhere made the point that if in the 1930s or ’40s the franchise had been restricted to university professors, the United States would probably have wound up with a Communist dictatorship. His point being that highly intelligent people often support stupid ideas. Why? For the same reasons stupid people do. Because those stupid ideas become fashionable. Because they’re emotionally appealing. Because they flatter our sense of self-importance. Because it’s not obvious how stupid they are until you see them put into practice.

So if you’re going to extend or limit the franchise, it’s not enough to say you’ll favour “sensible” voters. You need to work backwards from what kind of government you want to create. Shute desires a certain set of policies; he knows that wealthy people, parents of teenage children, military officers, and clergymen tend to support those same policies; so he gives their votes extra weight. In his day, no doubt, it also seemed reasonable to gamble on the conservative instincts of university graduates and those who’d worked abroad. The resulting electorate might not usher in an age of philosopher-princes, but it would probably stick up for Queen, country, and low taxes.

On the other hand, if you want more liberal policies, it helps to spread the franchise as far and wide as you can. Here in Canada there is occasional talk about lowering the voting age to sixteen; it won’t surprise you to learn that the New Democrats, Canada’s most left-wing mainstream party, have been the most enthusiastic proponents of this change. In the States, the Democratic Party is fighting to extend citizenship to a few million illegal immigrants who, by a funny coincidence, are highly likely, once enfranchised, to vote for Democratic candidates. This isn’t to say the NDP or Dems are cynically supporting these policies solely with an eye to their vote share. Like conservatives in the US and Canada who are pushing to tighten ID requirements to vote, on the probably spurious grounds that voter fraud is a widespread problem, they fully believe their own rhetoric, and get sincerely indignant when you challenge it. They believe they’re acting disinterestedly in the name of justice. You’d think intelligent people would be quicker than others to notice when they’re deceiving themselves, but their facility for self-deception is correspondingly more nimble.

People who put their faith in modern democracy make two assertions that strike me as debatable. The first is that the existing system is fairer than a system that would limit the franchise to those deemed, by whatever inevitably imperfect method, to be the most responsible citizens. Whether or not it’s fairer, it’s certainly easier to say “To heck with it – votes for everyone!” than embark on the awkward task of telling some of us we’re less qualified to bear the burden of governing. The second dodgy assertion is that our system is more effective at producing good government. This assertion of course depends on everyone agreeing beforehand on what constitutes good government, which it’s not in our nature ever to do; that’s why we resort to democracy in the first place. We can probably agree that avoiding outbreaks of anarchy is a good, objective measure of effectiveness; by which metric, universal suffrage has so far performed pretty well. But the experiment is less than a hundred years old. There’s no guarantee that fairness and effectiveness, in the end, must go together.

M.

PS. I might be the only person you’ll ever hear arguing against universal suffrage who doesn’t believe under a “better” system he’d enjoy a couple well-deserved extra votes. Under Nevil Shute’s rules I’m a one-vote man, and almost certainly always will be.

1. That John Stuart Mill passage is from Chapter 8 of Reflections on Representative Government, which advocates extending votes to “the very lowest ranks of the people”:

[I]t is a personal injustice to withhold from any one, unless for the prevention of greater evils, the ordinary privilege of having his voice reckoned in the disposal of affairs in which he has the same interest as other people.

However, “the prevention of greater evils” permits – in fact, requires, “by first principles”, Mill says -  the disenfranchising of tax evaders and parish relief recipients, as well as the uneducated: he advocates a “simple test” for voters in the presence of the registrar to determine literacy and numeracy. This reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s scheme, half-jokingly proposed in his 1980 collection Expanded Universe:

[S]tep into the polling booth and find that the computer has generated a new quadratic equation just for you. Solve it, the computer unlocks the voting machine, you vote. But get a wrong answer and the voting machine fails to unlock, a loud bell sounds, a red light goes on over that booth – and you slink out, face red, you having just proved yourself too stupid and/or ignorant to take part in the decisions of the grownups. Better luck next election! No lower age limit in this system – smart 12-yr-old girls vote every election while some of their mothers – and fathers – decline to be humiliated twice.

In the same essay Heinlein recommends Mark Twain’s The Curious Republic of Gondour, which outlines a voting scheme very much like the one in In The Wet.

2. Full disclosure: I haven’t read Thomas Frank or Bryan Caplan’s books. Maybe they’re not as simplistic as their back-cover copy makes them sound.

 

Jim Jarmusch: Rock-n-roll vampires are just like you and me!

The rock-n-roll vampires of Only Lovers Left Alive are among the most explicit audience wish-fulfilment surrogates in the history of fantasy filmmaking. Usually we have to exercise our imagination to vault ourselves into the exalted realm of our superhuman heroes. In our self-flattering daydreams we are always the mutants of the X-Men, the aliens of Avatar, the wizards of the Harry Potter world, never the ordinary clods who misunderstand and persecute them. It’s the fantastic element that prevents our identification with these demigods from becoming embarrassing. We feel a bit sorry for people who take their hero-worship so far as to actually learn Na’vi or participate in real-life Quidditch matches.

But Adam and Eve are exactly the sardonic, sexy misfits that the kind of people who go to Jim Jarmusch movies imagine themselves already to be. They make a fetish of old audio equipment and accoutre themselves in fabulous thrift-store chic. They’re saddened by pollution and they sneer at the anti-intellectualism of common rubes. They’re totally cool with gays. I’m pretty sure given more time with these characters we would eventually hear them endorse open-source software, the 100-mile diet, and public funding of the arts. Somehow these immortals have lived for at least half a millennium without accumulating any wisdom, or on the other hand carrying forward a single prejudice, that would challenge the belief system of the modern-day indie moviegoer. Isn’t that kind of boring? In the food court outside the theatre I could’ve found a dozen real people more fascinatingly estranged from the modern world than these ostensible relics of Elizabethan England.

In one of the latter, lesser-read chapters of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver finds himself in the land of Luggnagg, where he is told of the existence of certain people called Struldbrugs. These citizens, born now and then to ordinary mothers, have marks on their faces that indicate they will never die. Gulliver exclaims that these Struldbrugs must be the happiest people alive. When asked by his surprised hosts to elaborate, Gulliver paints a picture of wise and temperate sages passing their eternities in philosophical conversation with their fellows and freely offering the King the benefit of their accumulated knowledge. This discourse provokes much laughter. He learns that in fact the birth of a Struldbrug is regarded as a terrible omen. That these unfortunates age and suffer from disease just as we do, only they persist forever in their decrepit state, resenting and envying their countrymen who can look forward to the relief of death. The Struldbrugs are “opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship and dead to all natural affection”. After the age of eighty or so they lose interest in the world and stop learning new things, and eventually, as the language mutates and they fail to keep up, they find themselves unable to communicate even with their fellow citizens, let alone Struldbrugs born in earlier ages.

Jonathan Swift’s insight here was that even in the course of an ordinary lifespan, the world changes so much that a senior citizen finds himself feeling like a stranger in his own country. The vampires of Only Lovers Left Alive are no more alienated than the average struggling art student, but they wear their wisp of outsiderdom like a burqa. This happens to be one of the behaviours that old people find most irritating in young people. Am I incriminating the movie, then, or myself, when I say its immortals strike me as rather callow?

M.

Nevil Shute’s bad language.

A while back I wrote about Nancy Mitford’s surprisingly liberal use of the word “whore”. Today I came across an anecdote in Nevil Shute’s memoir Slide Rule, about the author’s career as an engineer in the early days of aviation. In the early 1930s his aircraft design business is growing and the work is overwhelming the firm’s sole secretary, Miss Brunton. She suggests that her sister, an unsuccessful dog breeder, be taken on. This creates confusion:

Rightly or wrongly I decreed that the girls were not to be called by their Christian names in the office. The new girl was no problem to my staff of shareholders because from the first she was known as Dog-Brunton. An unfortunate extension followed, and the office heard cries of “Bitch! Where’s Bitch? Oh, Bitch, when you’ve done Mr. Norway’s letters I’ve got some for you.” Perhaps Ethel and Joan would have been better, after all.

Nowadays this would lead to a lawsuit, but the word “bitch” in England in the 1930s was still in everyday use for a female dog, and therefore only mildly scandalous. Meanwhile, when Shute submits his first novel for publication he is told,

“The House of Cassel does not print the word ‘bloody.’” So we changed them all into “ruddy.”

There is a tendency among modern readers to snicker at the hang-ups of those who came before us; Victorian ladies blushing at the word “pants”, for example. But we have hang-ups of our own, as my surprise at these casual uses of “bitch” and “whore” illustrates.

When I read Huckleberry Finn aloud to my girlfriend not long ago, her body resting against mine as we sat together in bed, I felt her tense up each time I came to the word “nigger”, which was necessarily often. I explained that neither Twain nor Huck meant any insult by it; in their milieu “nigger” was no more shocking than “pants” is to us; but it made no difference, her revulsion was automatic. I sympathized. I’d had to gird myself to speak the forbidden word aloud.

I don’t know how long that taboo will last. As I got off the train the other day a couple of white teenage girls were getting on. I winced as one playfully shouted “Shut up, nigger” at her friend. I’m sure other old-timers in the crowd winced too, but none of us said anything, and the train pulled away with the girls loudly and unabashedly trash-talking each other in language absorbed from hip hop culture.

Who knows what those girls will be offended by, as they yell “cunt” and “cocksucker” freely on the streets.

M.

Marvel’s mannequins of SHIELD.

My girlfriend and I are five episodes into Agents of SHIELD. I would characterize our response so far as “grudging acceptance”. We want this show to be good, we hold out hope that it will someday be good, we keep telling ourselves that it exhibits signs of incipient goodness. The Whedon track record, and the affable presence of Clark Gregg, are enough to keep us watching for a while.

Living somewhere off to the side of the Facebook-Twitter-Tumblr axis, I have only the vaguest sense of what other people are saying about the show. I happened to check out the episode summaries on the AV Club today and was somewhat comforted to read this comment from reviewer Oliver Sava:

Chloe Bennett … doesn’t feel quite right as hacker/S.H.I.E.L.D. consultant/double agent Skye. The easy breezy make-up, the hip but still commercial wardrobe, the lustrous brown hair that falls over her shoulders like ribbons of finely shaved chocolate – how the hell does this girl look so good if she spends all day on a computer in her van? (Would it have hurt to throw some glasses on her to help sell the tech wiz image a tiny bit?)

I think “doesn’t feel quite right” understates the problem. This has been our complaint with the show from episode one – having conceived an eclectic group of characters with distinctive and often clashing personalities, the show’s creators elected to populate these roles with a lineup of generic Hollywood pretty people. Which perfectly-coiffed mannequin are we watching now, the high school dropout anarchist hacker, the eccentric scientific genius, or the icily competent ass-kicking secret agent? Hint: one of these characters is Asian, and one has an English accent. The other one is the other one.

When Liz first brought this up, at first I was inclined to pooh-pooh her observations as typical Beauty Myth-derived feminist grievance-mongering. Of course the girls are all pretty, I said: it’s Hollywood. This show, like all other TV shows, exists in an alternate reality where double-digit dress sizes don’t exist and women’s hairdos are constantly tended by invisible magic sprites. It’s not fair to blame the creators for a standard of female hotness that is imposed by studio execs, advertisers, and furtively masturbating internet fanboys.

But I was misunderstanding Liz’s complaint. The problem isn’t that they’re hot, she said, the problem is that they’re identically hot. The reason people love the assembling the team sequence in so many adventure movies is because we enjoy seeing diverse people brought together in a common cause. The hero, the bruiser, the stammering intellectual, the mysterious loner, the comic-relief foreigner, the hothead who’ll eventually betray the team, maybe an alien or an elf or something…whatever, mix and match. On the movie poster they all pose together with the bruiser looming in the background and the elf crouching ninja-style in front, and they look awesome because they’re all different.

Agents of SHIELD has the diverse group of characters, but has neglected to physically differentiate them in any way. Our imaginary poster consists of a hero, a slightly larger hero, a stammering intellectual, and three pretty girls (one of whom, luckily, is Asian).

This isn’t solely a problem of branding. Liz’s particular beef is with the Skye character, the computer hacker with the finely shaved chocolate tresses. As written, Skye could be pretty interesting – a mistrustful outsider with a sketchy past and an Aspergery aptitude for computer mischief. Basically she’s Lisbeth Salander, and I wonder if they didn’t cast the generically gorgeous Chloe Bennett precisely because they didn’t want the resemblance to be too glaring. The result is that every time Skye talks about her life prior to joining SHIELD – her childhood being shuffled among foster parents, for instance – the viewer tries and fails to square this narrative of dysfunction with the apple-cheeked all-American girl delivering it, and momentarily checks out of the story. (In our case this checking out is audibly manifested in Liz’s dismissive guffaws.)

It’s too late to go back into the early episodes and give Skye some scruffier clothes and maybe a piercing or a tattoo or something. But it’s not too late to have Chloe Bennett start delivering her lines with something approximating the level of attitude a formerly homeless information-must-be-free ideologue might bring to her dealings with the world’s most intrusive supranational spy agency.

M.

Defending metric.

**Note. I haven’t been updating. I’ve built up this self-defeating expectation that any time I post it must be a whole article – with its conclusions carefully reasoned out, and ideally supported by references. Rather than encouraging better blogging, this has only given me license to slack off. If each post requires a day and a half of work, it’s easier not to post. So I’m going to try editing myself a little less.**

Peter Hitchens today was grousing about the use of the metric system in Australia and New Zealand. He quoted George Orwell on metric:

[T]here is a strong case for keeping on the old measurements for use in everyday life. One reason is that the metric system does not possess, or has not succeeded in establishing, a large number of units that can be visualized. There is, for instance, effectively no unit between the metre, which is more than a yard, and the centimetre, which is less than half an inch. In English you can describe someone as being five feet three inches high, or five feet nine inches, or six feet one inch, and your hearer will know fairly accurately what you mean. But I have never heard a Frenchman say, “He is a hundred and forty-two centimetres high”; it would not convey any visual image. So also with the various other measurements. Rods and acres, pints, quarts and gallons, pounds, stones and hundredweights, are all of them units with which we are intimately familiar, and we should be slightly poorer without them. Actually, in countries where the metric system is in force a few of the old measurements tend to linger on for everyday purposes, although officially discouraged.

Orwell was right about the old measurements lingering. I grew up with the metric system, which we’ve had in Canada for almost forty years, and I still think in an ungainly hybrid of metric and imperial. Centimetres are fine for estimating the distance between my fingers, and kilometres are fine for the distance between towns, but for most everyday functions – the width of a room, the height of a doorway – feet and inches are much more useful. I know in the abstract that a metre is roughly a yard, so 185 cm must be a shade under six feet, but the difference between 175 and 185 cm is not readily comprehensible to me. The lack of intermediate measurements between centimetre and metre is likely a major obstacle to metric adoption.

On the other hand, I’ve never met a North American who understands what a stone is – we calculate weight in pounds. So the lack of an intermediate weight between tonne and kilogram can’t be the reason we cling to the old weights. I would say I can “feel” a kilogram about as easily as I can “feel” a pound, which is not terribly well in either case. I could probably adapt myself to metric weights pretty easily, as I already have to metric volumes – buying milk in metric portions quickly gives one a grasp of the litre, which is small enough for ready visualization. I doubt many Canadians my age have more than a vestigial grasp of pints, quarts, and gallons – it’s only through checking Wikipedia just now that I verified my vague impression that UK and US volumes are not the same thing. My generation doesn’t seem to miss Fahrenheit much, either. It’s no easier to “feel” a Fahrenheit degree than it is a Celsius degree, and the dead simplicity of reckoning in Celsius – water freezes at zero, boils at a hundred – makes the trade worthwhile.

Hitchens mentions that the kilometre is closely equivalent to the old Russian verst, which demonstrates that the kilometre is no more inherently hostile to human comprehension than a mile. Distances that great are pretty abstract in any case. The kilometre offers the unbeatable advantage, in the age of long-distance highway driving – something neither Orwell nor the stubbornly bicycle-dependent Hitchens can have had much experience of – that it can be more readily converted into driving time, at the rate of 100 km to the hour. If someone tells me Sydney is 2450 miles from Perth, I have to do some mental math, but I know in an instant that 3950 km equals about a 39-and-a-half hour drive. (Granted, few people driving that far would actually stick to a 100 km/hr speed limit, but at least it gives you a sense.) If in the future we get around by high-speed rail or hyperloop, this advantage will disappear, and the kilometre will have nothing particular to recommend it besides an extra three syllables, which for certain personality types will always be recommendation enough.

I’m sympathetic to duffers who recoil at the cold scientific precision of the metric system. I can’t argue with Hitchens’s or Orwell’s contention that the old measurements just sound better, homelier, more poetical. Perhaps metrication has subtly influenced our thought processes – made us more susceptible to technocratic tinkering by our know-it-all governing elite – but on the level of day-to-day usability, metric is no worse than the old system. Maybe we should view the kludgy Canadian mix of metric and imperial not as a sign of an unfinished changeover, but as a rough-and-ready accommodation of the best of both systems.

M.

A fox at his breast.

Mary Renault in her 1956 novel of the Peloponnesian War, The Last of the Wine, has her Athenian hero comment:

Spartans are the best thieves in the world. They keep their boys always half-fed, so that they can never have a belly-full without stealing; this is so that they will learn to live off the country. They get a thrashing if anyone sees them at it. There is a well known story about this, not the least remarkable part of which, to my mind, is that the boy was hungry enough to have intended eating a fox.

Thank you, Mary Renault, for drawing our attention to this absurdity, which other authors pass over as if it needed no elaboration. The first time I came across the tale to which her hero alludes, I wondered, Why on earth would anyone steal a fox? Here’s how Plutarch tells it, in his life of Lycurgus, the lawgiver of the Spartans:

So seriously did the Lacedaemonian children go about their stealing, that a youth, having stolen a young fox and hid it under his coat, suffered it to tear out his very bowels with its teeth and claws and died upon the place, rather than let it be seen.

That’s the 1683 translation of John Dryden, from my big Modern Library edition of The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. The Loeb Classical Library translation of 1914 is also available online, and the (modern) editor has added the skeptical footnote:

Umm, not to rain on anyone’s parade, but who steals foxes, and why? (Come to think of it, who would have one that one might steal it from them? Although there will always be someone to believe that foxes were kept as pets, CJ 44:305.)

…With the link going to a 1947 article in the Classical Journal called “Greek and Roman Household Pets” in which the author, on the authority of Plutarch’s tale, includes foxes among those pets “which appealed to the more eclectic tastes” of the ancients.

So did the boy steal the fox to eat it, or to play with it – or merely from an engrained Lacedaemonian habit of larceny? Plutarch gives a quite different, inferior, and no more enlightening version of the story in his Remarkable Sayings of the Spartans (in the 1878 translation of William Goodwin):

Another boy, at the time when freemen’s sons are allowed to steal what they can and it is a disgrace to be discovered, when some of his companions had stolen a young fox and delivered it to him, and the owners came to search, hid it under his gown; and though the angry little beast bit through his side to his very guts, he endured it quietly, that he might not be discovered. When the searchers were gone and the boys saw what had happened, they chid him roundly, saying, It had been better to produce the fox, than thus to conceal him by losing your own life; No, no! he replied, it is much better to die in torments, than to let my softness betray me and suffer a life that had been scandalous.

Since neither version explains what the boy intended to do with the fox, we must deduce that whatever it was, Plutarch didn’t think it interesting enough to comment on. So perhaps Renault is being anachronistic in having her hero remark on what must have been unremarkable to a Greek of his time.

***

The story of the Spartan and the fox comes up from time to time as a metaphor for suffering in silence, but the expression is uncommon enough that I can find only a smattering of examples online. I could have sworn I saw it used in Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, which I read recently; but now, using Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature, I’m unable to locate it.

As it happens, one of the few hits on Google Books is in the fourth issue of The Living Age, from June, 1844:

All this Lord Brougham bore as the Spartan boy bore the gnawing of the stolen fox at his breast.

That periodical lasted into the 1940s and is commonly known as Littell’s Living Age, from its founding editor Eliakim Littell. An ancestor of Jonathan, or just a Littell coincidence?

M.

Berks and wankers: A Canadian reaction to Kingsley Amis’s English.

My father, born and raised in Alberta, pronounced schedule with a sh- sound: SHED-jool. I don’t know whether he innocently inherited this quirk from his parents or teachers or the radio announcers of his youth, or whether he deliberately adopted it at some point to be perverse; whether he used it un-self-consciously right to the end, or whether he clung to it as a badge of linguistic distinction. Knowing him as I did, I think I can say he was free of any desire to lord his fancy pronunciation over anyone. He just loved language, loved to haul out five-dollar words, and since he must have noticed that his schedule was at odds with nearly everyone else’s, I guess he simply preferred it that way, and damn what anyone else thought.

That’s why I adopted it. Pulled in two directions, by the tides of North American English usage and by my father’s influence, I wavered between SHED-jool and SKED-jool through my teenage years, then settled consciously and definitely on the oldfangled pronunciation as I entered adulthood. It was done under the same impulse, no doubt, that makes me favour fedoras and bow ties, get sentimental about long-dead Hollywood actresses, and spend my leisure time re-reading Plutarch.

I can definitely say I never had a desire to lord my fancy pronunciation over anyone. But still my friends would sneer when I said SHED-jool. “What?” I would retort. “It’s how my father says it.”

A few years ago I was having drinks with friends and we wound up talking about words that irritated us. I don’t remember how the conversation went, but I probably mentioned “little ones” (a trendy substitute for “babies” or “kids” that makes me think of Victorian paintings of prancing fairies) and the short-A pronunciation of bathed (as in “bath-ing the little one” instead of “giving the kid a bath”) as two phrases that made my jaw instinctively clench. Someone said how much they despised SHED-jool and everyone groaned in sympathy.

“I say SHED-jool,” I peeped.

“I know,” my friend replied. “And I hate it.”

So I stopped saying SHED-jool, or tried to; I slip back into it without meaning to now and then. It doesn’t come up all that often – say a couple times a year – so it may take me the rest of my life to train myself to consistently say SKED-jool. By then, possibly, some new pronunciation will have come in vogue.

***

In The King’s English, his idiosyncratic, cranky, and entertaining guide to English usage, Kingsley Amis divides abusers of the language into two broad classes:

Berks are careless, gross, crass, and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.

Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim, and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.

Some pronunciations Amis identifies as useful wanker-detectors, like hors d’oeuvres (“few non-wankers over the age of, say, twenty-one try to say the words in any Frenchified way”), issue (“to say ISSyou is a piece of pressi-OSSity”) and words starting with wh- (“[n]o affectation is easier to detect than a phoney HW beginning to wh- words”).

I’m innocent of over-Frenchification and I don’t think I’ve ever said ISS-you, but I have been known, when reading aloud, to say HWICH and HWAT; I’ll stop. Amis has no entry on schedule, which of course as an Englishman he would have pronounced as my father did, but I suppose a Canadian edition of The King’s English would include SHED-jool among its wanker-detectors, along with other Anglicisms like ROWT for route and LEZHer for leisure; I’ve used these too. (In the latter case, I say it that way only in mock-grandiosities like “man of leisure” or “at your leisure”, where I think it’s okay.) Herb with a sounded H is the usual British pronunciation (as against North American ERB), but no Canadian has ever complained of my affected H; however toe-MAH-toe, spoken by a North American, would strike even me as highly suspect.

I mentioned Amis’s warning about hors d’oeuvres. He provides three useful pages of common French or French-derived terms along with the non-wankerish, non-berkish way to say them. Despite Amis’s general rule that a speaker should, “when the language of conversation is English, avoid any attempt at exact French pronunciation, which can hinder the flow of talk,” I would identify at least two of his suggestions, if used by a Canadian, as wankerishly Frenchified: penchant, for which he recommends PON(G)shon(g) while mocking Americans “who say penshant, as if they thought it was an English word”, and plaque, for which Amis prescribes “plahk rather than plack”. By contrast, his VALLit for valet and a-TATCH-y for attaché would in Canada be considered much more wankerish than the Frenchified versions, if they were comprehended at all. For macabre Amis memorably advises, “Imagine yourself addressing a Scot called Macarbrough”, i.e. muh-KAH-bruh; but I think muh-KAHB is perfectly comprehensible and better reflects the original French without injecting any distracting foreign sounds into the flow of talk.

Amis justly complains that “that right of the English language, as of any other, to devise its own forms for foreign names is under constant erosion” by the forces of pedantry and political correctness. He mourns the loss of mar-SAILS for Marseilles – now shorn of its terminal S and universally pronounced in something like the French manner – and such long-established place names as Peking and Ceylon. (Since he wrote, Burma and Bombay have gone the same way.)

I would have liked some advice on what to do with foreign names containing non-English sounds. I vaguely recall a Woody Allen movie where someone’s (Diane Keaton’s?) insistence on pronouncing van Gogh with a guttural -gh sound at the end marked that character as a pretentious twit. I think self-respect demands van GO, and more or less BOCK for Bach and LOCK for a Scottish lake (with just the slightest effort to move the K sound to the back of the mouth; I was once scolded by a Scot for not trying harder, but I don’t see why I should be obliged to croak out non-English sounds while travelling in an English-speaking country). What else? There’s that hopeless German diphthong ö; I say GER-bels and GER-tuh for Goebbels and Goethe. Yet I guess I’m not quite self-respecting enough to insist on George Lewis BORE-jis for Jorge Luis Borges; I say HOR-hay lu-EES BORE-hess because I don’t want people to think I’m a total dummy. (For the same reason, I pronounce forte, in the sense of a strong suit, in the Italian style, for-TAY, even though I’m aware it derives from the French and is correctly pronounced FORT. What use is being right if everyone thinks you’re wrong?)

***

Complaining mildly of the crowding out of the older sense of gay by the newer, Amis concedes that

once a word is not only current, but accepted willy-nilly in a meaning, no power on earth can throw it out. The slightest acquaintance with changes in a language, or a minimum of thought, will show this truth.

But just thirty pages earlier, in his passage on disappearing English place names for foreign places, Amis has demonstrated that words can be thrown out quite rapidly, indeed willy-nilly, if there is a political will behind their banishment. Around the time (1997) The King’s English was published, Oriental, once the ordinary and uncontroversial term in North America for people who traced their ancestry to Asia’s Pacific rim, rapidly became taboo and was replaced with Asian. In the UK, Oriental is still used for our Asians, while Asian generally refers to people from the Indian subcontinent, whom over here we now call South Asians. Since this arrangement – the lexical monopolization of a whole continent by the natives of one or the other of its coasts – seems patently inadequate, I expect it too will be overturned in my lifetime. I’m hoping the helpful word Desi will come into wider use among English-speakers for the people and cultures of South Asia. But I’m aware of no comparable word for East Asia. Mongoloid might have done the trick if it hadn’t been made poisonous by its association with mental retardation.

Right now gay is undergoing a comparable renovation. A friend who works in a library told me about a poster that recently went up in the young adult section with the slogan, “That’s so gay is so yesterday.” In other words, the remaining negative connotations of gay – of effeminacy, uncoolness, overexcitability, trying too hard – are now to be swept away by fiat. I’m sure the campaign will be successful, although, in semi-conscious reaction against it, I lately find myself using or at least thinking gay in the “that’s so gay” sense more than I have since I was a teenager.

In theory there’s no reason why the two meanings of gay can’t coexist, the way black the racial group coexists with black the adjective meaning grim or gloomy. But of course blacks as a group aren’t thought of as particularly grim or gloomy, so the persistence of the other meaning doesn’t threaten them. Whereas gays as a group can be kind of gay, in the “that’s so gay” sense, as a look at the dudes shimmying on the floats at the Pride Parade will demonstrate. So unless “that’s so gay” can be purged of its meaning entirely – say, turned into a synonym for ugly or bland or some other concept that isn’t associated with gays – its use will necessarily be perceived as a slur.

***

Two examples of non-linguistic wankerish behaviour. First is the milk-in-first delusion, which is the notion common among Canadians that it’s somehow classier to put the milk in first when you’re pouring a cup of tea, as the British are thought to do. The irony being that among class-conscious Brits, milk-in-first was once (and perhaps still is?) thought to be rather common; Martin Amis and his peers had an adjective, miffy, that signified hopeless middle-classness. (I’ve written about this at greater length.) The wankerish behaviour isn’t putting the milk in first, or putting the milk in second; it’s passing comment in any way on the order you or someone else put the milk in. Shut up about it. It’s milk.

Similarly, until quite recently in North America it was considered unremarkable, in fact it was the usual thing, to put ice in a glass of Scotch. This is frowned on among Scotch aficionados, particularly those who learned their drinking in the UK. That’s fine; no-one’s saying you have to put ice in your Scotch, mate. But if someone else likes to, shut up, you wanker.

M.



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